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Harsher punishment for distracted driving car crashes in New Jersey

New Jersey lawmakers are sending a strong message to residents this week, with the passage of a new public safety bill through the committee that would increase penalties for using a cellphone behind the wheel.

Texting and talking while driving are already prohibited activities in New Jersey. Distracted driving and using a cellphone behind the wheel have been linked to an increased risk of getting in a car accident, similar to driving while intoxicated.

The new law would add using a cellphone behind the wheel while not on a hands-free device to the list of activities considered reckless under New Jersey law. This means that in a car accident where someone has been injured or killed, the driver could be charged with either vehicular homicide or vehicular assault.

These charges carry heavier penalties than charges for crimes that do not involve reckless conduct. The current law only provides for an 18-month prison sentence, whereas the change would allow for a maximum of 10 years.

“Tragedies like the ones [these families] endured are made all the more tragic by the fact that they could have been avoided if the other driver hadn’t been so careless,” said the sponsor of the bill. “Hopefully these stiffer penalties will be a wake-up call to drivers who are willing to put their own life, as well as those of innocent people, at risk.”

In addition to the criminal charges, drivers who injure someone while violating cellphone use laws may be liable for the injuries in a civil suit. Defining the conduct as criminally reckless may also lead to more favorable settlements for people who are injured by drivers using cellphones.

Source: New Jersey Star-Ledger, “Bill to increase homicide convictions for texting-related deaths clears N.J. Assembly panel,” MaryAnn Spoto, June 18, 2012.

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