Joel Feldman can’t drive across the Ninth Street bridge in Ocean City without a flurry of painful emotions returning.
The bridge is blocks away from where his 21-year-old daughter, Casey, was killed by a distracted driver 10 years ago in July while walking to her summer waitressing job at Bob’s Grill.
“He reached for his GPS and then hit Casey. He said he didn’t see her,” Feldman said of the accident that ended the life of Casey, an aspiring television broadcaster who was studying at Fordham University in New York.
In April, police across New Jersey crack down on motorists who text and drive during their three-week “U Text. U Drive. U Pay.” campaign, which runs until the 21st.
Ten police departments in Cape May and Atlantic counties have received $5,500 federal grants for additional patrols during the ticket blitz.
Distracted driving is a widespread problem, even as drivers become more aware of the consequences of taking their eyes off the road. Across Atlantic County, there were 52 crashes related to cellphone use in 2017, the most recent year for which there are data, according to the state Department of Transportation. Cape May County saw 14 such incidents.
Every day at rush hour in April, an Egg Harbor Township police detail stakes out busy roads for four-hour texting-and-driving crackdowns. On Thursday, police gave out 15 tickets for distracted driving on the Black Horse Pike before 1 p.m. The minimum fine is $150 to $200.
Distracted driving includes texting, eating, drinking and grooming, said Egg Harbor Township police Sgt. Larry Graham.
“Anything that takes your mind off the road,” Graham said, though officers use their discretion.
The township, which receives grant money each April, saw the second highest number of crashes related to cellphone use in Atlantic County, behind only Atlantic City.
Hands-free, Bluetooth devices are now installed in most new vehicles, Graham said. And although that’s better than texting, he cited research that shows even talking while driving takes a person’s brain off the task at hand.
Texting and driving was the leading cause of fatal crashes in the state for seven years, according to an annual report by the State Police. The number of cellphone-related crashes in Atlantic County hasn’t changed significantly since 2008, after the first iPhones were released.
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The situation, Feldman said, isn’t getting worse or better. He argues laws and stricter enforcement can only go so far. Instead, the culture of constant connectivity needs to change, he said.
“It’s the last thing we do before going to bed and first thing we do when we wake up,” he said. “If we can get teens to want to be that respectful person ... that’s how you make distracted driving a thing of the past.”
After his daughter’s death, Feldman started a nonprofit, End Distracted Driving, aimed at doing just that. He has spoken to more than 150,000 adults and students at talks around the country, trying to appeal to listeners on a personal level.
One alarming trend: Younger and less experienced motorists are not as worried about the effects of texting on their driving. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found 30 percent of drivers between 21 and 34 said texting doesn’t impact their motor skills.
“I’m more concerned about the teens because of their inexperience,” Feldman said. “The adults can get away with it longer.”
Sending a six-character text takes about five seconds, Graham said, and another 20 seconds to fully return focus to the road. A driver going 45 mph will travel between 100 and 150 feet in that time, he said.
“That’s a long time to have your attention drawn away from the road,” he said.