Fighting a lethal threat on our roads


Responding to an 8% spike in New Jersey traffic fatalities in 2016, largely attributable to the increasing scourge of distracted driving, Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and the Division of Highway Traffic Safety last week announced a new initiative to encourage and help the public report dangerous drivers to law enforcement.

The state’s #77 alert system will now be used to alert authorities to all forms of dangerous driving, from people operating a vehicle while looking at a cell phone to those driving while impaired. 

The current system allows motorists and pedestrians who witness aggressive driving to call #77 to report it. Those calls are answered by the State Police and are then forwarded to the local police agency that, in certain circumstances can respond to the call and, if the behavior is witnessed, issue a summons.

The protocol of #77 will remain the same, but those who witness dangerous driving of all types — motorists texting, talking on a cell phone, etc. — also will now be able to call the number. 

In case you are wondering: “This does not mean that those who spot distracted drivers should text while driving themselves,” Porrino noted in a press release. 

Drivers are urged to pull over in order to make the call, use a hands-free device or have a passenger in the vehicle make the call. Pedestrians may call #77 as well.

In addition, if the license plate of the distracted driver is gathered, a warning letter detailing the time and place of the observed offense may be sent to the vehicle owner’s home, authorities said.

“We believe this will serve as a deterrent to future offenses,” said Porrino. “And if, for instance, it is a teen driver operating a parent’s vehicle, the letter may serve as a teaching tool, hopefully spurring betterdriving habits in the future.”

To aid with the rebranding of #77, road signage along the state’s major highways will be changed and digital signage will also tout the effort, as will a public awareness campaign, including radio spots and ads on buses and billboards.

The new #77 initiative runs parallel with the state’s 2017 distracted driving crackdown, called “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” As part of that campaign, more than 190 police agencies throughout New Jersey have received a total of $1,204,500 in federal grants to help with enforcement efforts. That program runs from April 1 through April 21.

In The Observer’s coverage area, the Lyndhurst, Belleville and Bloomfield police departments were each to receive a grant of $5,500, authorities reported. 

Grants of $40,000 each were earmarked for the Hudson County and Essex County sheriff’s offices.

With that money, the AG’s office said, law enforcement will be deploying plainclothes officers to watch for cell phone users at intersections and interchanges. Marked vehicles can then be contacted to stop and cite drivers. 

Also, departments will be using high-visibility patrol vehicles, such as SUVs, where officers in the passenger seat can look down into vehicles to spot distracted drivers for citation, the AG said.

Traffic fatalities in N.J. rose from 562 in 2015 to 604 in 2016, an average of 12 deaths a week — an increase officials say is due in part to distracted driving, such as cell phone use behind the wheel.

In the U.S., in 2015 alone, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Teens were the largest age group reported as distracted at the time of fatal crashes.

Noted Porrino: “The main mission of the Attorney General’s Office is to promote and protect public safety, and protecting motorists and pedestrians is as important any other initiative we take. We have an obligation to those who suffered losses to combat distracted driving with every means we have.”

— Karen Zautyk

Learn more about the writer ...