Bills Would Increase Penalties For Drivers’ Handheld Cell Phone Use And Mandate Cardiac Screenings for Student Athletes

Using a cell phone behind the wheel has been deemed dangerous across the United States. In New Jersey it’s illegal for motorists to use a handheld cell phone while driving and some officials want to make the penalties of those involved in crashes more severe. Sen. Fred Madden Jr. (D-4) has introduced legislation that would define handheld cell phone use by motorists as reckless driving. He spoke with NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider about the legislation and another bill that would increase screening of student athletes for heart conditions.

Madden explained that, if passed, the cell phone bill would make handheld mobile device use a second degree crime in the event of a fatality. In New Jersey, that carries significant penalties, including possible imprisonment between five and 10 years and a fine of up to $150,000, he said. The inspiration for the legislation came from Madden’s home district, District 4, where a pregnant woman and her unborn child were killed after a driver using a cell phone went across the center lane and hit her vehicle head-on.

“Over the years, there’s been a lot of work done regarding improper cell phone usage here within the state of New Jersey and every session we deal with another measure trying to strengthen, to educate, put controls and reduce the number of improper handheld cell phones,” Madden said. “Our most recent statistics show that in New Jersey, there’s over 100,000 traffic convictions regarding improper use of cell phones a year.”

Under the current law, Madden said use of a handheld cell phone falls under careless or inattentive driving. The bill would raise the threshold, making such action reckless. Madden explained that in criminal court, reckless action means it was a willful disregard for the safety and welfare of others.

“If this bill passes, prosecutors will have a paragraph or an extra piece of criminal legislation that could enhance their convictions of individuals who are improperly using cell phones when they’re involved in fatal crashes,” he said.

Madden has also introduced a bill that would require insurance companies to cover pre-screening for heart conditions in student athletes in the state. “Every year within New Jersey and the surrounding states, whether it be the fall or the spring, we hear of a student athlete who has died from sudden cardiac death,” he said. “The attempt here is to simply enhance screening measures that we do when we evaluate the medical preparedness of our student athletes prior to their participation in physical exercise.”

Another component to the bill requires that the individuals conducting the physicals be well versed and educated on the screening measures so that they can further evaluate the condition or the potential condition of the student athletes’ hearts, Madden said. Students and their families will also fill out a questionnaire that will help identify any issues.

“We feel as though we’ll have a measure in New Jersey that is much stronger than we have now with the understanding that we’re trying to identify those students who are potentially at risk for cardiac disease,” Madden said.

Madden said he believes there will still be a tax cut measure approved, even though tax revenues are less than expected. “The reality is in the fourth quarter of every fiscal year the numbers always move up and down,” he said. “But moving forward I’m quite confident we want to have a tax-cutting measure bill in and out of the State House before the end of June.”