Driven to (fatal) distraction



You may not be aware (pun intended) of this, but April is national Distracted Driving Awareness Month. These days, the distractions (along with daydreaming) are chiefly texting or yapping on your cell phone while behind the wheel.

Despite repeated warnings, and legal repercussions, motorists continue to do both, often with fatal consequences — to themselves or to some poor innocent who happens to be sharing the road with them while they are too busy “social networking” to concentrate on driving.

The N.J. Division of Highway Traffic Safety estimates that distracted driving was responsible for up to 160,000 motor vehicle crashes in the state in 2011, and the National Safety Council estimates that one of every four crashes is caused by a driver using a cell phone to talk or text.

Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 3,000 deaths nationwide in 2012 in distraction- affected crashes — crashes in which drivers lost focus on the safe control of their vehicles due to manual, visual or cognitive distraction.

In a statement released last week, N.J. Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa called distracted driving “an epidemic on New Jersey’s roadways.”

Chiesa said research has shown that a texting driver presents the same threat on the roads as a drunk driver.

“We know it’s wrong and irresponsible to drive drunk, and there are severe legal and personal consequences that accompany a drunk-driving arrest,” the AG said. “There’s equivalent danger here between drunk driving and distracted driving, and I believe we should approach the issues with the same seriousness.”

“Decades of experience with drunk driving and getting people to buckle up have taught us it takes a consistent combination of public education, effective enforcement, and the collective efforts of local, state, and national advocates to put a dent in the problem,” Chiesa noted.

Gary Poedubicky, acting director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety, said text messaging is of heightened concern because it combines three types of distraction — visual, manual and cognitive: “In other words, texting involves taking your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, and your mind off the task of driving.”

Poedubicky said drivers should turn off electronic devices and put them out of reach before driving. He said passengers should speak up when a motorist uses an electronic device while driving and offer to make the call for the driver.

New Jersey’s primary cell phone law went into effect in 2008. Motorists violating the statute face a $100 fine plus court costs and fees.

However, under a law passed in 2012, in certain crashes, proof that a motorist was operating a hand-held wireless telephone can give rise to charges of reckless driving, assault by auto, or, in cases involving a fatality, vehicular homicide.

–Karen Zautyk

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