State kicks off distracted-driving awareness campaign and crackdown

TRENTON, NJ — Kicking off National Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April, acting Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division of Highway Traffic Safety recently announced the results of a 2021 study, which found that, at any given time, one in five drivers on selected high-crash corridors in New Jersey were driving while distracted. The study, commissioned by HTS and conducted by Rowan University, also provided insight into distracted driver behavior and identified key factors that contribute to it.

Also in observance of National Distracting Driving Awareness Month, HTS has rolled out an updated version of its successful 2021 “Take Control of Your Destiny” distracted-driving awareness campaign and launched “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” — a statewide, month-long enforcement campaign targeting distracted driving.

“Distracted driving kills people — it is that simple. And these deaths are entirely preventable,” Platkin said. “As part of the Murphy administration’s focus on the safety of all New Jerseyans, we are stepping up education and enforcement efforts throughout the state and calling on drivers to do their part and remain alert and focused at all times behind the wheel.”

Distracted driving has long been a leading cause of crashes in New Jersey. Data shows that driver inattention accounted for more than half of all crashes recorded in the state from 2011 through 2020, and for nearly a third of fatal crashes during that period — outpacing speeding and drunken driving as a contributing factor in traffic deaths.

“Distracted driving continues to be a serious problem in New Jersey,” N.J. Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. “Drivers are responsible for their actions behind the wheel of a vehicle. Please put the phone down and eliminate other driving distractions so the focus can be on driving safely.”

To better understand and address the problem of distracted driving, HTS — through the Center for Research and Education in Advanced Transportation Engineering Systems at Rowan University — commissioned a study to look beyond crash statistics to provide a broader picture of the distracted driving problem in New Jersey.

The study focused on six corridors in New Jersey with high incidents of distracted-driving crashes — US1, US9, US130, I-80, US22 and the Garden State Parkway — and on four other important arterial and interstate roads in the state — I-295, I-95, NJ18 and NJ55. 

During the spring and summer of 2021, researchers traversed nearly 15,000 miles on the 10 roadways in a vehicle mounted with cameras on both sides to observe, record and document distracted driving in real time.

Researchers specifically looked for visual distractions, such as drivers taking their eyes of the road while texting or talking to passengers; manual distractions, such as drivers taking their hands off the wheel while texting, receiving calls, tuning the radio, reaching for an object or eating/drinking; and cognitive distractions, such as drivers taking their mind off driving when texting or receiving calls).

Key findings of the study include: At any given time, more than 20 percent of motorists on the selected roadways were driving distracted. Driver distraction was higher on weekdays than on weekends. Handheld cell phones were the leading type of distraction on both weekends and weekdays. Receiving calls, texting, eating/drinking and grooming were more prevalent as forms of distraction on weekdays than on weekends; talking to passengers was more prevalent as a form of distraction on weekends than on weekdays. Roads with traffic signals experienced more distractions from “grooming and eating/drinking” than roads without traffic signals, while the latter had a greater proportion of “talking to passengers” events. The overall rate of distractions was greater during the “peak hours” of 9 a.m. to noon and 3 to 6 p.m. An increase in speed limit significantly increased distracted driving, while an increase in the number of lanes significantly
decreased it.

“While the overall findings of the Rowan study paint a bleak picture, the information gleaned from the study provides us with important insights that will be used to develop strategies for addressing and mitigating distracted driving through enforcement and education,” HTS Director Eric Heitmann said. “Combating driver inattention is a top priority for HTS, especially during National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, when we join states across the nation in raising awareness of this problem and cracking down on violators.” 

The launch of the “Destiny 2.0” public awareness campaign builds on the success of the original Destiny campaign that featured colorfully decorated steering wheels to remind drivers of what is uniquely important to them and what is at stake every time they get behind the wheel. “Destiny 2.0” features updated images to hammer home the message that maintaining focus on the road today helps ensure drivers get to where they are going in the future. The new ads will appear in public spaces throughout the state, as well as on the internet and radio. For more information on the “Destiny 2.0” campaign, go to njsaferoads.com/destiny.

Also getting underway is New Jersey’s annual “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” distracted driving enforcement campaign. During the campaign, which runs through April 30, police departments across the state join law enforcement agencies nationwide in a targeted crackdown on drivers who text, talk on a cell phone or engage in similar conduct that takes their focus off the road.

It is illegal in New Jersey to operate a motor vehicle while using a handheld electronic device. Violating this law subjects motorists to fines of $200 to $400 for a first offense and could increase to $800 with the addition of three insurance points in subsequent violations.

To assist with New Jersey’s “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” enforcement efforts, HTS has provided 202 law enforcement agencies throughout the state with grants totaling $1,600,800 that pay for saturation patrols during the month-long campaign.

In Essex County, the following grants were given to these police departments: Bloomfield, $12,250; East Orange, $7,000; Fairfield, $7,000; Glen Ridge, $7,000; Livingston, $10,500; Maplewood, $8,750; Millburn, $7,000; Montclair, $12,250; North Caldwell, $7,000; Nutley, $7,000; Verona, $7,000; and West Orange, $12,250. 

Last year, the “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” campaign resulted in 8,014 citations for cell phone use/texting and 4,346 citations for careless driving. In addition, participating police agencies issued 6,151 speeding citations and 2,944 citations for seat belt violations.

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