Assembly Committee Considers Bill to Prohibit Distracted Driving

By Brenda Flanagan

AAA videos show whether you’re texting or making sure your lipstick’s on just right, distracted driving takes your eyes off the road, no matter what you’re doing. “When your head’s down for two seconds, that’s kind of the magic point at which you’ve now lost track of what’s happening in front of you,” said Robert Molloy.

Molloy’s with the NTSB — National Transportation Safety Board — and told Trenton lawmakers today, traffic fatalities spiked 9 percent nationally in the first half of this year. That means more than 19,000 people died in just six months.

“And I believe one of the reasons we’re seeing crashes go up — despite all the great efforts that the states are doing to reduce crashes — is because of the ubiquity of these devices [cell phones]. Reading a text message or talking on a wireless phone can have catastrophic consequences. The NTSB believes a significant number of lives can be saved and injuries avoided if New Jersey expands and strengthens its already strong laws,” Molloy said.

Molloy advised banning all non-emergency use of portable electronic devices. He said drivers should pull over to use any app that demands more than two seconds of concentration. The Assembly Transportation Committee’s considering a bill to prohibit distracted driving and solicited testimony from experts.

“The question isn’t whether or not using your cell in the car is a safety risk. Really, the question is, do we value safety over convenience?” Molloy asked.

But some raised concerns about how much government can actually control driver activities. One study showed nearly 30 percent of drivers admitted last year they go online while on the road. And should navigation, voice-to-text or climate control functions be disabled?

“We cool it enough and then all of a sudden it gets too cold. Is that going to be considered a distraction? Do you take the climate control systems out of cars?” asked Assemblyman Scott Rumana.

“If somebody texts me it prints out on my dashboard, the message. It will read it back, but it’s still asking me to hit, ‘Listen,’ ‘Ignore’ or whatever,” said Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce.

“We’ve mitigated the manual distraction: you can’t hold your phone. We’ve mitigated the visual distraction: you can’t text it. But crashes keep going up,” said AAA Northeast Director of Public Affairs Cathleen Lewis.

Lewis says millions of cars now feature built-in voice recognition technology — and that’s even more distracting.

“As we put these devices in cars, we give people a false sense of security that it is safer. It’s been put in your vehicle, it is now safe for you to do. We know that’s not the case,” she said.

The committee didn’t vote on any distracted driving bills. Federal agencies and AAA say they plan to meet with car makers and electronics companies like Apple. The objective: keep their apps useful, but at the same time keep drivers’ eyes on the road.