Can anything be done to stop people from using cellphones while they drive? The evidence - gathered by looking around New Jersey's roadways - is not encouraging.
Even on a sloppy, snowy morning this week, when drivers who thought winter was over felt their wheels slipping beneath them, you could still count on being passed on your commute by someone talking on a cellphone.
Nearly everyone acknowledges how stupid it is to talk - or worse, text - while driving, but an alarming number of drivers do it nonetheless.
A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report examining data from two other studies said a staggering 69 percent of U.S. respondents admitted they had talked on a cellphone while driving within the past 30 days, well above the figures for other western countries.
So we're not optimistic that a bill approved by the Assembly last week to increase the penalties for using a phone while driving will eliminate the practice. But it could help.
The bill (A1080) would increase penalties for cellphone use while driving and create a graduated penalty structure for repeated violations within a 10-year period.
Currently, drivers face a $100 fine for each offense. Under the bill, the penalty for a first offense would be $200. A second offense within 10 years would carry a penalty of $400 and a third offense would mean a fine of $600 and a possible 90-day driver's license suspension. An exception is made for drivers reporting a crime or calling for help.
The bill was passed by the state Senate in June. It now returns to the Senate for approval of Assembly amendments. The Senate should send this bill to Gov. Chris Christie and he should sign it. The penalties are easily justified by the consequences of talking and texting while driving.
If anything, the bill doesn't go far enough. It doesn't address the larger issue of driver inattention, including hands-free phone calls, which have also been shown to be dangerous and should be banned as well. Studies suggest that carrying on a phone conversation while driving - either hands-free or hand-held - can impair drivers as much as drinking alcohol.
Ultimately, legislation and fines will only have a limited effect on changing driver behavior. Police cannot be everywhere. Like drunken driving, this dangerous practice may only become less pervasive when the public decides to no longer tolerate it, when the hard lessons of fatal accidents caused by inattentive driving are finally learned.
But in the meantime, whatever New Jersey can do to get drivers to wake up to the dangers and hang up the cellphones is worth a try.