For months, Mike Kellenyi said, he was so distraught that he was unable to return to work after the loss of his 18-year-old daughter, Nikki, in an April 2012 distracted-driving accident. Nikki Kellenyi, about to graduate from Washington Township High School, was in a car with two friends when the driver, who was using a cellphone, failed to stop at an intersection and an F-150 pickup truck smashed into them, injuring the driver and other passenger as well.
Kellenyi, 55, of Sewell, said Thursday that he was pleased that New Jersey was taking a new step to combat distracted driving -- one he had been advocating:
Drivers on New Jersey state highways can now dial #77 to report distracted driving, the Division of Highway Traffic Safety announced Thursday. Since 1995, #77 in New Jersey has been used to report aggressive driving. It will now support both types of calls.
The initiative is the first of its kind nationally, according to the Division of Highway Traffic Safety. Pennsylvania does not have a hotline to report aggressive driving.
"A lot of people don't even bother to report distracted driving, but it's the same thing as drunk driving, which is why I support the initiative 100 percent. I think it's a great thing and offers hope," Kellenyi said.
Attorney General Chris Porrino said New Jersey saw an 8 percent increase in traffic fatalities, to 604, in 2016, many attributed to distracted driving.
"Those numbers are not just statistics to families who have lost loved ones," Porrino said.
At the New Jersey State Police Regional Operations and Intelligence Center in West Trenton on Thursday, a call to the hotline was simulated by communications dispatcher Jasmine Zulawski.
Zulawski seemingly asked a caller who had dialed #77 for the make, model, color, and license-plate number of the car, if possible. She then forwarded the call to the corresponding local police agency, which will send local officers to the scene. If the behavior was later witnessed by an officer, a summons could be issued.
Porrino emphasized the importance of not becoming a distracted driver in order to report other reckless drivers. Drivers are encouraged to pull over, use a hands-free headset, or have a passenger make the call.
If the license-plate number of the allegedly distracted driver is provided, a letter detailing the incident will be sent to the vehicle owner's home. Officials hope this will serve as a deterrent for future offenses. Although the state has access to out-of-state records, New Jersey State Police Maj. Glen Szenzenstein did not say if letters would be sent to out-of-state motorists.
Evesham Township Capt. Walt Miller called the statewide initiative a "great tool" to prevent distracted driving. The township has been cracking down on distracted driving since 2009, when it began studying crash data and deploying officers to high-crash sites during the hours when accidents had taken place there.
As a result, Miller said, in one part of town officers have been closely monitoring, the number of crashes fell from 846 in 2010 to 446 in 2016.
"Our goal with this is to encourage drivers to think twice about talking on the phone," he said. "We've examined [locations] of where these accidents occur and know that most accidents are largely preventable."
To advertise the initiative, signage on state highways will note the change and it will also be announced on the radio and on billboards.