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A ban advances on texting by drivers

An Assembly panel approved the bill after members admitted to doing it themselves.

TRENTON - After a discussion that at times resembled a group therapy session more than an Assembly meeting, New Jersey legislators yesterday pushed forward a plan to make it illegal to send text messages while driving.

The Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee voted unanimously to release the proposal after several legislators admitted frequently firing off text messages while behind the wheel, even though they know doing so is dangerous.

"I am addicted to the BlackBerry," said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R., Union), referencing the handheld device that allows people to send and check messages.

"To me, it's a lot of common sense," said Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D., Camden).

The bill would fine drivers up to $250 for using mobile devices to send text messages.

Arizona and Connecticut are among states considering similar laws, and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire is scheduled to sign such a bill into law today.

Sponsors cited a recent Nationwide Insurance survey that found one in five drivers texts while driving. That number soars to about one in three among those ages 18 to 34.

"We're consumed with instant communication," said a bill sponsor, Assemblyman David Mayer (D., Gloucester-Camden). "As this instant communication becomes more prevalent in our society, we need laws that deal with the risks."

Bramnick said he considered whether the law would limit personal rights, then pondered his own behavior while driving. "I know it's wrong to look at that BlackBerry, and every time I've had a near miss in an accident, I say to myself, 'I'm not looking at that BlackBerry again,' " he said.

But he does anyway, and thinks a law will make him toe the line. "If I know there is a law, I myself will respect that law," Bramnick said.

Unlike New Jersey's ban on using a handheld cell phone while driving, the proposal would allow police to stop anyone they see sending text messages while driving. Police officers can cite a person talking on handheld cell phones only if they pull over the driver for another reason.

The bill must be approved by the full Assembly and the Senate before becoming law.