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Cell-phone crackdown in New Jersey

More than 108,000 drivers have been ticketed for operating handheld cell phones since a New Jersey law gave police authority to pull drivers over for the offense last March.

More than 108,000 drivers have been ticketed for operating handheld cell phones since a New Jersey law gave police authority to pull drivers over for the offense last March.

That's more than 300 tickets a day between March 1 and Jan. 30, according to the state's Division of Highway Traffic Safety.

"There are a lot of people out there doing this," said Gary Poedubicky, deputy director of the division. "The cell phone is probably the most common driving distraction. And, obviously, we need to keep getting the message out there that it's dangerous."

New Jersey is one of a growing list of states to crack down on the use of handheld phones by drivers. The state's law also prohibits texting.

Talking on a handheld phone has been illegal in the Garden State since 2004. But until March 1, 2008, officers could issue a ticket only if a driver was pulled over for another infraction.

The number of citations written for the offense has skyrocketed, more than tripling in most counties in 2008. Essex and Bergen Counties had the highest number of tickets, according to the state. Salem, Sussex, and Cape May Counties had the lowest.

Today, New Jersey officials will celebrate the first anniversary of the statute with the launch of a pilot program to target drivers using handheld phones. Eighteen police departments in Gloucester, Mercer, Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Morris and Union Counties have received grant money to conduct a two-week enforcement effort.

Some local departments say they don't go out of their way to ticket for phone use. But the law has made it easier to spot potential problems, said Lt. David Raso of the Deptford Police Department.

"If we see someone on a phone and then they start doing some weaving, we'll pull them over because we can see their attention is divided," Raso said.

In a time when state and local government budgets are stretched thin, revenue from those tickets adds up. State officials say they have not calculated how much fines have netted, but at $100 per ticket - the minimum fine - it could be several million dollars.

Most of those ticketed pleaded guilty or were found guilty, according to the state. The offense can carry a $250 surcharge if a driver pleads guilty in a plea agreement on a more serious offense.

California, Connecticut, New York, Utah, and the District of Columbia ban talking on a handheld phone while behind the wheel. New Jersey was the second location, after Washington, to include texting.

Pennsylvania could soon join the list. Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery) has proposed a statewide ban on handhelds that would include texting. Conshohocken, West Conshohocken, and Lebanon have local ordinances on the use of handheld phones by drivers.

Last year, Philadelphia City Council proposed a similar law. A hearing on that matter is expected to be held soon.

Some safety advocates believe that cell-phone use should be further restricted. In January, the National Safety Council called for a national ban on all behind-the-wheel use, arguing that even talking on a hands-free phone is dangerous.

The council, which likened talking on a hands-free or handheld phone to drunken driving, developed its position after reviewing more than 50 studies.

One study estimated that 6 percent of vehicle crashes can be attributed to cell-phone use. That translates into about 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries each year, according to the council.

No state has a total ban on phone use. But some New Jersey officials maintain that talking hands-free is no safer than using a handheld phone.

"Your mind and eyes are not on the road," said Poedubicky, of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety. "Any type of use of a cell phone while driving is not safe."

Ted Lopatkiewicz, director of the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, can point to at least one high-profile example of an accident caused by a conversation on a hands-free phone.

In November 2004, a bus driver in Virginia was deep in conversation with a family member when he plowed into the bottom of an overpass, he said. Eleven high school students were injured.

The driver, Lopatkiewicz said, had passed signs warning of a low-clearance bridge and instructing tall vehicles to move into a different lane.

"He said that not only had he not seen the warning signs, he didn't see the bridge," Lopatkiewicz said.