DIAL #77: In what's believed to be one of the first initiatives of its kind in the U.S., New Jersey authorities announced Thursday that they’ll start sending warning letters to distracted drivers reported by citizens.
Citizens will be able to report them under the new program, unveiled Thursday by the state's top law enforcement official in response to an 8-percent spike last year in traffic deaths statewide -- due largely to distracted driving.
The state’s #77 alert system, previously used for reporting aggressive driving, will be expanded to include drivers looking at cellphones or clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said.
Grants for stepped-up policing have also been awarded to hundreds of law enforcement agencies statewide -- including 30 in Bergen and 10 in Passaic County – as part of a separate program (The area's largest grant -- $40,000 -- went to the Passaic County Sheriff's Department. SEE BELOW ).
Traffic fatalities in New Jersey rose from 562 in 2015 to 604 in 2016 -- an average of 12 deaths a week, authorities said.
Distracted driving plays an enormous role, they said.
In 2015 alone, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers across the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Teens were the largest age group reported as distracted at the time of fatal crashes.
“These deaths and injuries are not simply statistics,” Porrino said. “Those are husbands and wives, sons and daughters, parents and grandparents.
“How many would still be alive today if others had been paying full attention to driving?”
Using #77 allows motorists and pedestrians to be law enforcement’s “eyes on the road, helping to protect their neighbors and friends and perhaps changing attitudes, as well,” said Gary Poedubicky, acting director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety.
As with the current aggressive driving system, callers can report distracted or impaired drivers by dialing 77.
Troopers at the New Jersey State Police Regional Operations and Intelligence Center in West Trenton will answer those calls and immediately route them to local police.
That could lead to summonses and even arrests.
At the very least, Porrino said, authorities who obtain a full license plate will send a letter to the vehicle owner “detailing the time and place of the observed offense,” Porrino said. “We believe this will serve as a deterrent to future offenses.
“If, for instance, it is a teen driver operating a parent’s vehicle, the letter may serve as a teaching tool, hopefully spurring better driving habits in the future,” the attorney general said.
WARNING: This doesn’t mean you should use your cellphone while driving to make the report. Pull over, use a hands-free device or have a passenger handle it, authorities said.
“Pedestrians, of course, may call #77, as well,” Porrino said. “Only report what you see when it is safe to do so.”
The new initiative runs in conjunction with “U Drive. U Text. U Pay,” in which more than 190 police agencies throughout New Jersey have received a combined $1.2 million in federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants (see below). The program runs from April 1 through April 21.
“With that money, police departments, including the State Police, will be deploying plain-clothes officers to watch for cell phone users at intersections and interchanges along New Jersey roadways,” Porrino said. “Marked vehicles can then be contacted to stop and cite drivers.
“Also, departments will be using high-visibility patrol vehicles, such as SUVs, where officers in the passenger seat can look down into vehicles to spot distracted drivers for citation.”
Towns in Bergen receiving $5,500 each:
- Elmwood Park
- Fort Lee
- Franklin Lakes
- New Milford
- Palisades Interstate Parkway PD
- Palisades Park
- Park Ridge
- Ridgefield Park
- River Vale
- Saddle Brook
- Upper Saddle River
- Woodcliff Lake
Towns in Passaic County receiving $5,500 each:
- West Milford
- Woodland Park