New Jersey statistics show that talking on a hands-free cell phone while driving can be just as dangerous as talking on a hand-held phone.

Between 2006 and 2008, people using hands-free phones were involved in 4,530 crashes, according to state Department of Transportation records that attribute cell phone use as a cause of the accidents. That number is only

18 percent lower than the 5,541 crashes during the same period involving people who were illegally using hand-held cell phones. Talking on a hand-held phone while driving has been illegal in New Jersey since 2004. Talking on a hands-free phone while driving is not illegal in New Jersey.

A motorist is also almost as likely to be injured or killed when involved in a crash while using a hands-free cell phone.

State Department of Transportation’s accident records for 2006-08, the latest available, show that crashes involving hands-free cell phones injured 1,834 people and killed 10 statewide. Crashes with people using hand-held phones injured 2,317 people and killed 16 in those three years.

Hand-held cell phones were a part of 738 local crashes, which injured 345 people and killed seven from 2006 to 2008 in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties. Hands-free devices factored into 360 crashes, where 137 people were injured locally and one person killed.

In October, Hamilton Township police said James Romer, 26, of Mays Landing, was headed east on Route 40 when he either reached for the phone or made a call. The car went off the road and snapped a utility pole in two. In July, Middle Township police said Jeffrey Latimer’s car crossed the center line on Route 47 and hit an oncoming car when the 29-year-old Wildwood resident reached for a cellphone. Neither Latimer and Romer, nor the driver of the car Latimer hit, were seriously injured.

A hands-free cell phone was a factor in a fatal Atlantic County 2008 crash, according to state figures. But the DOT cited a state law excluding accident reports held by its Bureau of Accidents as public records in refusing to specify where the accident occurred. Atlantic County’s Prosecutor’s Office, Office of Emergency Management and Medical Examiner’s Office officials said they were unable to identify the incident.

Thought they were safe

Area motorists said they thought that hands-free phones were significantly safer than hand-held phones and were surprised by the number of crashes.

“I like conferencing,” Dan Hopper said as he walked out of the Shore Mall in early May. “That way you don’t have to hold it.”

A former limousine driver from Absecon, the 48-year-old said driving and using a hand-held cell phone “is worse than drunken driving, because at least you know you’ve been drinking. If you’re on a cell phone, you think you own the world.”

The dangers of distracted driving have been publicized by some for more than a decade.

A survey in the February 1997 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found that the risk of a driver crashing while using a hand-held phone was 4.3 times what the risk would otherwise be. The survey of 699 drivers also found that the risk while using a hands-free device was 3.9 times greater, a difference the survey authors called “not significant.”

The relatively high number of accidents for people using hands-free devices was no surprise to Tracy Noble, New Jersey spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. The distraction isn’t the phone, Noble said. It’s the attention needed to use the phone at the same time as driving, even with hands-free phones.

“Even though you are listening, your mind is processing the information, and you’re busy formulating a response,” she said. “We have to change the culture that everyone is multitasking when they are in a vehicle because it is a danger when you are taking your attention off of the roadway.”

The motorist advocacy agency has generally supported legislation that would reduce distractions, she said.

Naadir Muhammad, 40, of the Venice Park section of Atlantic City, said the problem was not the device. “If the conversation is really intense or really serious,” then it was more dangerous, regardless of device, Muhammad said.

A friend of his, Luisa Rodriguez, 20, also of Atlantic City, said,”I really thought (hands-free) was so much safer, though.”

Similarly, Russ Beckman, 28, of Egg Harbor Township, said he also thought hands-free was much safer. The real problem is people who text-message while driving, he said.

Northfield police Chief Robert James agreed that the goal is to reduce the number of distractions faced by motorists, and return their attention to the road.

On May 12, undercover officers standing along Route 9 near the Church of St. Bernadette in Northfield watched for passing drivers who were talking on hand-held phones. Violators were stopped at a roadblock up the road and ticketed.

“You can find yourself getting into an argument with people who aren’t even in the car at all,” James said, as the cars were lined up in the church parking lot behind him. “Anything that reduces distraction for the driver … is something the state should look at,” the chief said.

Pamela S. Fischer, director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety, said her goal was to make talking and driving as frowned upon as drinking and driving.

“We would want it to be unacceptable to make phone calls behind the wheel,” she said, “even hands-free.”

Cell phone laws

Driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone is banned in six states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Governors Highway Safety Association says. Legislators in nearby Pennsylvania are contemplating a similar ban, and Philadelphia banned hand-held phone use behind the wheel in December. The association said no states have prohibited all cell phone conversations by all drivers.

However, 25 states and Washington, D.C., prohibit novice drivers from using any cell phones; 17 states and the District of Columbia ban school bus drivers from using phones while passengers are present, and 21 states have enacted texting bans.

New Jersey’s ban on hand-held cell phone use began in July 2004, when driving while chatting became a contributing offense, meaning police could cite a driver only if the person had already been pulled over for another violation.

In November 2007, then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed legislation that increased the penalties for using cell phones and texting while driving. It cleared the Legislature easily, with 26 sponsors and with 68-12 and 34-2 votes in the General Assembly and Senate. The legislation required motorists to use a hands-free device for calls, either a wired harness or wireless device such as a Bluetooth ear piece. With few exceptions, drivers who are caught with a hand-held phone face a fine of $100.

Law enforcement in New Jersey has written nearly 10,000 under the law each month since it took effect in March 2008 and 253,203 in total by the end of April, state Judiciary statistics show.

The law may be helping make a dent in the number of distracted drivers.

State Police spokesman Capt. Gerald Lewis Jr. said the figures showed an overall decrease in accidents between 2006 and 2008. State DOT figures show the total number of crashes where cell phones were a factor declined 10.5 percent, from 3,580 in 2006 to 3,204 in 2008.

“I think people are more aware that it’s a distraction,” Lewis said. “And most importantly, I think that more people are realizing that no device can take the place of having your undivided attention on the safe operation of your vehicle.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University survey last July found 80 percent rarely or never talked on the phone while driving, up from 71 percent in 2007. However, the survey also found the number of people texting while behind the wheel rose from 15 percent to 21 percent.

Contact Derek Harper:

609-272-7046