Acting Attorney General John Hoffman today announced the staggering toll driver inattention has taken on New Jersey’s roadways in the past 10 years, declaring that the State experienced a “distracted driving decade” and that an ongoing law enforcement initiative is working to help end the crisis.
From 2004 to 2013, driver inattention was a major contributing circumstance in 1.4 million crashes in New Jersey – that is about half of the total crashes in the state in that period. Distraction was the number one contributing circumstance in total crashes. And in one decade (2003-2012), more than 1,600 people have been killed in crashes where driver inattention was a major contributing factor.
“The numbers tell the sad truth: we are in the midst of a surge in driver inattention, and crash statistics bear out that we can characterize the last 10 years simply as ‘New Jersey’s Distracted Driving Decade,’” said Hoffman. “What is perhaps most troubling about these numbers is that the issue of distracted driving seems to be getting progressively worse. Our research indicates that while crashes and fatalities are trending downward as a whole, the number and proportion of distracted crashes are rising.”
At the beginning of the “Distracted Driving Decade” in 2004, driver inattention was cited as a major contributing circumstance in 42 percent of crashes. But that number has risen in those 10 years and last year it peaked at 53 percent. And the proportion of distracted crashes has surged 26 percent in that time span.
“In recent years smartphones and other devices have become more sophisticated and it’s clear to most of us that they’re being used more by drivers,” said Acting Director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety Gary Poedubicky. “Though the overall picture of road safety is brightening, one cannot help but conclude that there is an increasing addiction to distraction for drivers. We need to put an end to the epidemic of driver inattention and close the book on the ‘Distracted Driving Decade.’”
In an effort to stop distracted driving, the Division of Highway Traffic Safety has for the first time made funds available to law enforcement agencies for a statewide crackdown on motorists who are using a handheld device while driving, which is illegal in New Jersey. Sixty police departments received $5,000 each for the campaign called U Drive. U Text. U Pay. and the funds will be used to pay for checkpoints and increased patrols. Many more enforcement agencies are also expected to participate unfunded in the initiative, which was funded and developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
About halfway through the three-week campaign, which runs from April 1 to 21, the funded departments have issued an estimated 3,000 summonses for cell phone and electronic device violations.
“People need to know that we are serious about stopping this deadly behavior,” said NHTSA Region 2 Administrator Thomas M. Louizou. “Using a handheld phone and texting has reached epidemic levels. When you text or talk on the phone while driving, you take your focus off the road. That puts everyone else’s lives in danger, and no one has the right to do that.”
The crackdowns are similar in scope to the Drive Sober, or Get Pulled Over and Click It or Ticket mobilizations, which have targeted impaired driving and seat belt usage, respectively. Louizou said the successes of those programs have proven that the combination of tough laws, targeted advertising, and high-visibility enforcement can change people’s risky traffic safety behaviors.
To see a list of agencies receiving funding for this initiative please visit:www.nj.gov/oag/hts/downloads/UDUTUP_2014_Grant_Recipients.pdf
This increased police presence on the roads will soon be paired with stepped up penalties for breaking the State’s primary cell phone law. Currently, motorists violating New Jersey’s primary cell phone law face a $100 fine plus court costs and fees. Because of a new law signed by Governor Chris Christie last year, penalties for that transgression will get stiffer. On July 1, those penalties will rise to a range of $200 to $400 for a first offense, $400 to $600 for a second, and up to $800 and three insurance points for subsequent violations. These changes follow the adoption in 2012 of the “Kulesh, Kubert and Bolis Law.” Under that law, proof that a defendant was operating a hand-held wireless telephone while driving a motor vehicle may give rise to the presumption that the defendant was engaged in reckless driving. Prosecutors are empowered to charge the offender with committing vehicular homicide or assault when an accident occurs from reckless driving.
Joining Acting Attorney General Hoffman’s call to end distracted driving was Gabriel Hurley. Hurley, 29, was severely injured in a 2009 crash that left him blind and with extensive damage to his face and skull. Hurley sustained his injuries when an oncoming car collided into an underpass while he was entering it. The impact caused the other car’s air-conditioning compressor to come flying into his windshield. Hurley, of Middlesex, said he believed the 17-year-old driver had been inattentive behind the wheel at the time of the crash.
After an extensive recovery period, which included more than a dozen facial reconstructive surgeries, he began a career as a safe driving advocate and has spoken to thousands of drivers, most of them in high school, about the consequences of reckless and inattentive driving.
“The course of my life was altered in that crash,” Hurley said. “I have lost my sense of sight and smell and suffered other physical and emotional damage. However, I believe what happened gave me a purpose to tell everyone that crashes like mine are preventable and we can stop them by simply focusing on the task at hand when we’re behind the wheel.”
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