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Newly-Enforceable Cell Phone Ban Carries Costly Fines for Drivers

Matthew Hersh

It's a familiar scenario: you see someone driving carelessly, you get a glimpse of the driver, and the culprit is chatting away on a cell phone, seemingly oblivious to what is happening on the road ahead.

However, sightings of motor-mouth drivers may begin to wane after last week's implementation of a law signed by Gov. James McGreevey in January banning the use of hand-held cell phone devices. Barring various emergency-related exceptions, drivers will now have to plug in to hands-free equipment to continue on-road cell phone use.

The law, which became enforceable on July 1, will be stringently enforced, said Princeton Township Lt. Robert Buchanan.

"The purpose of the law is to get you to pay attention to your driving," he said, adding that because the law falls under the state's Title 39 classification of careless driving, motor vehicle points can be attached to a summons along with a fine ranging from $100 to $250.

Emergency exceptions in the law, Lt. Buchanan said, include a fear for the driver's well being, incidences of criminal acts performed against the driver, and reporting a fire, traffic accident, or medical hazard. He added that reporting careless drivers or those presumed under the influence of alcohol or drugs also exempts a driver from using the hands-free device.

Otherwise, Lt. Buchanan said, drivers will be issued summonses for cell phone use.

However, the law, considered a "secondary offense," cannot be enforced independently of other traffic violations. In other words, a driver can be ticketed for using a cell phone only if he or she is pulled over for a primary Title 39 offense, which includes moving violations.

New Jersey's seat belt law was also initially a secondary offense, but later became primary. Lt. Buchanan said he expects that before long, the hand-held cell phone ban will also fall under the primary classification.

The law is not draconian, Lt. Buchanan said. On the contrary, he said it will help improve driving conditions in and around Princeton and throughout the state. He recalled one instance where he witnessed a driver talking on the phone, holding the cell phone to his ear, and steering with his elbow. "It was amazing," the lieutenant said.

"It's a good law," said Gurpreet Singh Nayar of Intouch Concepts, the Verizon Wireless vendor on Nassau Street. With hand-held cell phones, "you lose the physical ability to move your head around, making it more difficult to see," he added.

Basic earpieces can be purchased at most electronics stores for between $20 and $40. Speaker kits range anywhere between $40 and $60, with more sophisticated equipment extending into the $100 range.

While several other states are currently debating implementing similar measures for drivers, the U.S. is behind other countries in instituting restrictions. Currently, 46 countries around the globe have nationwide hand-held restrictions.

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