It is not illegal to text or talk on a hand-held cell phone while behind the wheel in New Jersey if you’re stopped at a red light or stop sign.

(Martinan, ThinkStock)

The head of the Assembly Transportation Committee is one of several lawmakers who tried unsuccessfully to change the law last year. Assemblyman John Wisniewski co-sponsored a bill (A-685) that would make it a motor vehicle violation for a driver to talk or text, even when stopped. It passed the full Assembly, but stalled in the NJ Senate. Wisniewski vowed to re-introduce the legislation in 2016.

“One of the things I’ve focused on in my time as the chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee is the scourge of distracted driving,” said Wisniewski (D-Sayreville). “Life has become complicated and we have taken that complication and distraction with us into the driver’s seat of our cars and unfortunately that inattention does have a disproportionate effect on the number of automobile accidents and crashed we have.”

Under the previous version of the bill there would be fines for anyone caught texting or talking behind the wheel even when stopped. The new bill will include the following fines as well:

  • Not less than $200 or more than $400 for a first offense;
  • Not less than $400 or more than $600 for a second offense; and
  • Not less than $600 or more than $800 for a third or subsequent offense.

“What the studies show happens is when the light turns green you don’t put down the phone. You don’t stop texting. You don’t stop the conversation and that leads to distraction. Also, when the light turns green and your head’s down into your text you often wind up causing everybody behind you to miss the light causing people then to try to squeeze through the yellow and it creates other problems,” Wisniewski explained.

The Assemblyman said there were people opposed to bill who told him it is not a big deal to talk or text when stopped. He had a ready response for that.

“If all you were going to do for the rest of the day is be stopped at that traffic light that’s a valid point,” he said.

A report released by AAA New Jersey in 2015 showed:

  • A higher percentage of New Jersey drivers, 30 percent, compared to nationwide drivers (27 percent), admitted to typing or sending a text or email; and, compared to drivers across the U.S. (96 percent), a slightly higher percentage of New Jersey drivers (98 percent) believed it is somewhat or completely unacceptable behavior.
  • 2 out of 3 drivers nationwide believed hands-free phone use was acceptable.
  • 2 in 3 drivers nationwide reported talking on their cell phone.
  • 1 in 3 drivers nationwide admitted to reading a text message or email.

“Distraction is not just while your vehicle is moving,” said Cathleen Lewis, director of public affairs and government relations at AAA New Jersey. “If you’re at a stop light or stop sign and you pick up your phone to text because you’re stopped, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on on the road around you. You may not notice the light turned green and you may inadvertently cause a rear end crash because people behind you continue to move and you haven’t started.”

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter at @kevinmcardle1.

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