By Steven Clayton

It is amazing what technology has brought to our lives, things that previous generations couldn't have dreamed of. However, new technology also brings new responsibilities. This is particularly true when it comes to using hand-held cell phones while driving.

It is tragic when a driver's use of a cell phone results in a serious or fatal accident. Now, under a law that becomes effective March 1, the use of hand-held devices such as cell phones and BlackBerries will be banned in New Jersey, and text messaging while driving will be expressly prohibited. Violators face $100 penalties.

(The new law makes talking on a hand-held device or text messaging a primary offense. Currently, talking on a cell phone is a secondary offense; drivers must be charged with a first offense for an officer to cite them for cell-phone use.)

There were 2,013 accidents attributed to hand-held cell-phone use from 2002 to 2005, according to the New Jersey Department of Transportation. We know it is dangerous, so why do we do it?

John Robinson, past director of the Americans' Use of Time Project and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, says it's all about our fast-paced lifestyles in which we do several things at once.

"I think our research has shown a pattern of increased multitasking while communicating," he says, "and cell-phone usage while driving is certainly one of the ways where you can do two or three things badly, instead of one thing correctly."

Many of us take driving well for granted, I believe, and overstate our driving abilities. This is particularly true for teen drivers, who may not realize all the perils of the road. Research shows that multitasking distracts from the primary activity - such as driving. That can have devastating effects.

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report in 2004, about 25 percent of crashes were due to driver distraction. Though there are other forms of distraction - talking to a passenger, fixing your hair - hand-held cell-phone use was a contributing factor in those crashes.

Some say there should be a distinction between those who use cell phones for emergencies and those who just chat at all times of day and night. The new law allows hand-held devices to be used only for such things as reporting accidents and dangerous driving, or if the caller feels he's in danger.

Where does one draw the line? How can an officer challenge what the driver might consider a real emergency - making sure a child is safe, or calling a doctor about a serious illness in the family? The question lacks a clear and definite answer.

So when it comes down to it, we should just try our best not to use a hand-held cell phone or to text message while in the car.

You can use an earpiece if you would like to talk on the phone while driving.

It doesn't eliminate all the risk, but it is a good start. Not only will you be keeping yourself and your family safe, but also you will be doing your part to keep my family and me safe, along with everyone who drives our heavily congested roads in the Garden State. I promise you won't regret it.

Steven Clayton lives and writes in Ocean Township, Monmouth County.