N.J. to Fine Drivers Using Cell Phones Starting July 1

New Jersey’s ban on cell phone use by drivers goes into full effect on July 1, but police still can’t pull somebody over simply for chattering away while going down the road.

Motorists talking on hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel could be fined up to $250, but only if they are stopped for another driving infraction. That has some questioning the effectiveness of the new law.

State officials said the measure is intended as a starting point for getting drivers to eliminate a potentially deadly distraction.

“It’s a human behavior issue,” said Roberto Rodriguez, director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety. “We want to analyze driver behavior to see if making it tougher is necessary.”

He compared the cell phone measure to a state law requiring use of seat belts, which was changed from a secondary offense to a primary offense, and now allows police to stop motorists for not wearing one. That change was made because statistics showed that 2 of every 10 drivers on New Jersey roads still weren’t buckling up.

New Jersey is the second state to outlaw driver use of hand-held cell phones. It is also prohibited in New York, and police there can stop motorists for talking on the phone even if no other driving infraction took place.

When Gov. James E. McGreevey signed the measure into law, he dismissed criticism of it being a secondary offense, or one that requires another driving violation to be enforced. He said it was a necessity on New Jersey’s crowded roads.

That message of safety is being relayed to local police officers by top state law enforcement officials, according to Mitchell Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.

“We’ve had meetings with the attorney general’s office and they’re making a big push on it,” Sklar said. “It is a priority for the state. It’s more an awareness thing than writing up tickets.”

The message being pushed is that use of cell phones distracts drivers to the point that accidents could occur. At least 25 percent of vehicle crashes on the road are due to some form of driver distraction, according to estimates by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Cell phone use was eighth on a list of factors contributing to accidents, ranking behind eating, changing radio stations and other driver distractions, according to an AAA study.

State legislators considered instituting fines for other types of distractions, but police doubted that those types of infractions could be proved in court.

Critics said tickets for using cell phones are likely to be handed out to drivers talking on the phone and exceeding the speed limit, which was the case when not wearing a seat belt was a secondary offense.

Steve Carrellas, state coordinator for the National Motorist Association’s New Jersey chapter, said the cell phone law will be ineffective.

“It’s really going after the people who use cell phones occasionally and don’t present a threat,” Carrellas said. “Ideally, what you want to go after are people who are constantly on the phone. Since they can’t differentiate, we’re stuck with this blanket ban. People are going to end up resenting it because a lot of people use the phone occasionally in the car.”

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