State Assemblyman-elect Jack Ciattarelli called on adults and teens alike to become a band of warriors—fighting alongside the county to stop people from texting while driving.
In a press conference Tuesday, the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office—in conjunction with the Somerset Medical Center and Somerset County Association of Chiefs of Police—launched its new anti-texting campaign to convince drivers not to use their phones while driving.
“It is the collective hope of all the partners that everyone spreads the message,” Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano said during the conference held at the Raritan Valley Community College. “Just don’t do it with texting.”
Soriano said he has been looking into this kind of campaign since he was nominated for his position in 2010.
“Distracted driving was labeled as a deadly epidemic,” he said. “It got me thinking that that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”
“Is the content of your last text worth you risking your life or the lives of others?” he asked.
And with the launch of the new campaign—and a proclamation from the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and read at the conference by director Robert Zaborowski—the county has declared December to be Distracted Driving Prevention Month.
December will also be “Put It Down” month to encourage drivers to stop texting while driving.
“Officers will be stepping up enforcement in the county,” said William Parenti, president of the Somerset County Association of Chiefs of Police.
According to Parenti, additional enforcement will be handled by members of all police departments in the county, and will be focused on routes 202, 206 and 22, and all county roadways.
Police, Parenti said, will be posing as traffic surveyors and other road workers while patrolling the streets for people texting while driving.
When a driver is seen using a phone for text messaging while driving, Parenti said, an officer will pull the person over and issue a warning, not a summons, right away. Offenders will be required to watch a video about the dangers of texting while driving, answer questions and provide personal information within 15 days or a summons will be issued with a $100 fine.
“If you [watch the video and answer the questions], the warning will be gone,” Parenti said.
The prosecutor’s office, in connection with the program, is also asking drivers to take a pledge to not text while drive, and completed forms can be returned to the Somerset Medical Center marketing and public relations department at 110 Rehill Avenue.
The purpose of this, Parenti said, is to raise awareness.
“The goal is to educate, not engage in monetary punishment,” he said.
Parenti said state law maintains that using a cell phone while driving is a primary offense, which means drivers can be pulled over for only violating that law.
“You can be pulled over for texting or talking while driving,” he said. “Drivers can be so absorbed in texting, their concentration becomes severely impaired.”
And there are three elements to driving that are all altered when texting while driving, Parenti said—visual because a driver’s eyes are off the road, physical because hands are off the wheel and cognitive because the mind is not focused on driving.
Ken Bateman, president and CEO of the Somerset Medical Center, said the statistics concerning distracted driving are staggering.
“I didn’t realize how much of an issue this was at first,” he said. “But 6,000 Americans die in motor vehicle accidents each year because of distracted driving.”
“At the medical center, we see all types of tragedies,” he added. “We want to have perspective before something happens, not after.”
Ciattarelli said there are currently five bills pending on the floor of the state legislature concerning distracted driving.
“They are to make the penalties commensurate with the offense of talking or texting while driving,” he said.
According to Soriano, 33,808 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2009, and, of that, 5,474 were due to distracted drivers, with 995 specifically because of cell phone usage.
The purpose of the new anti-texting campaign in the county is to curb the number of distracted drivers on the roads.
Bill Pauli, a former Bridgewater Township Police Officer and a current member of the Somerset County Collision Response Team, talked through a power point presentation concerning the different aspects that could cause a driver to be distracted, as well as how to avoid making those mistakes.
“We have to lay a foundation to understand why people are distracted,” he said.
Pauli said it is all about the different stimuli, and being able to see and react to them all. This ability is diminished when texting while driving.
“A lot of factors affect response time,” he said. “And the number one source of driver inattention is the use of a wireless device.”
“You are four times more likely to be in a crash when you are talking on a cell phone, and 23 times more likely when you are texting,” he added.
In addition to a demonstration of how talking on the phone causes distractions, Pauli showed the audience the full video, created by AT&T, which those caught texting while driving will be required to view. The video follows the stories of people affected by distracted drivers, including a woman whose sister died because of texting, and a teenager who hit a cyclist because he was texting while driving.
Soriano said he will be sending a copy of the video to all school superintendents in the county.
“Sure a phone can be smart, but when you are driving, it can transform into a deadly weapon,” he said.
For more information about the campaign, visit the website at stoptextingnow.org.