Written by attorney Anthony J Van Zwaren

NY and NJ toughen penalties on cell phone users

New York State has recently passed tougher new laws against distracted drivers who talk or text on their cellphones while driving. On June 1, 2013, they increased the points levied from 3 to 6 points for those who are caught. According to a news report in Long Island Newsday, tickets in New York for distracted driving have increased while tickets for people caught driving under the influence actually decreased. New York State Police issued estimates that one in five accidents in the state were caused by distracted drivers. Those holding junior or probationary licenses can also face enhanced penalties in the form of suspensions from driving privileges.

New Jersey is also moving in the same direction.Recently, the State Legislature passed a law doubling fines for those convicted of distracted driving, and for those convicted of three or more offenses, a driver can have his or her license suspended for up to 90 days and be penalized with three points on their license. NJSA 39:4-97.3 now states that fines for a first offense shall be no less than $200 and no more than $400; a second offense shall be no les than $400 or more than $600; and for a third offense no less than $600 nor more than $800.00. Previously there were no points for cell phone violations, but as mentioned, the present law states that a person with three or more convictions "shall" be assessed three points. And the penalties can be assessed for second or third offenses for anyone receiving a cell phone conviction going back ten years, so even if one violated the statute before the current law, it appears that they can be assessed as second or third time offenders. However, what people should be aware of even more, is the fact that a distracted driving offense can lead to a homicide charge as witness the recent arrest of a bus driver, who was talking on his cell phone and lost control of his bus, killing an eight month old child. He was being held on $250,000 bail and being charged with homicide by auto and reckless driving. The driver faces possible incarceration of between five to ten years if convicted. So it is perhaps wise to ponder the effects of texting or talking on a handheld device while driving, since the consequences can be far more severe than a simple fine or even points against one's license. This is no longer being treated as a secondary offense, and the very least you face is a $200 fine.

While the case of the bus driver now facing criminal charges may be extreme, it is a cautionary story for those who still consider using their handheld cellphones for calling or texting as a harmless offense with no points (still the case in New Jersey for the first two offenses). But if you are involved in an accident, and someone gets injured or dies, you may wonder what was so important about that call.

Additional resources provided by the author

N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.3

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