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State: Distracted-driving incidents total 1.4 million

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By Karen Zautyk
Observer Correspondent

The statistics are mind-boggling.

From 2004 to 2013, 1.4 million motor vehicle accidents in New Jersey were linked to distracted driving. Repeat: 1.4 million. In New Jersey alone.

From 2003 to 2012, more than 1,600 people were killed in N.J. crashes where driver inattention — chatting on a cell phone, texting, checking your messages, etc. — was a “major contributing factor.”

And in spite of increased warnings, including graphic public service ads, the problem appears to be increasing, too.

Editor’s note: This commercial is from the USDOT, not the New Jersey DOT.

One state official described it as an “addiction” to distraction, fed by ever-more-sophisticated electronic devices. Anyone who spends any time behind the wheel has at least one story about narrowly escaping disaster when some other motorist ran a stop sign or blindly pulled onto a highway or rear-ended them because a phone call or a Tweet took precedence over paying attention to actually driving.

“But I only looked away for a second,” is a common excuse. On the road, all it takes is a second to invite tragedy. The staggering data for our state were reported last week by Acting N.J. Attorney General John Hoffman.

At a press conference in Paramus, Hoffman noted, “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.’

“What is perhaps most troubling about these numbers,” Hoffman said, “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.”

Gary Poedubicky, acting director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety, commented, “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.” He added, “Though the overall picture of road safety is brightening, one cannot help but conclude that there is an increasing addiction to distraction for drivers.”

In an effort to combat this addiction, New Jersey is increasing the penalties for violating the cell phone law.

Currently, offenders face a $100 fine. On July 1, this 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.

As is the case now, prosecutors will have the discretion to charge the offender with assault or vehicular homicide when an accident occurs. This month, the state has been encouraging a law-enforcement crackdown on motorists who use a handheld device while driving, which is illegal in New Jersey. Sixty police departments received $5,000 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants to pay for checkpoints and increased patrols.

None of the departments chosen, however, was in The Observer’s coverage area.

In Hudson County, the grants were given to police in Guttenberg and Union City; in Bergen County, to Englewood Cliffs, Hillsdale, Paramus and Ramsey.

There were no Essex County recipients.

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