Tickets soar in N.J. for cell-phone talkers

Unidentified driver talks on cell phone at traffic light on the Collingswood / Westmont border. (Tom Gralish / Inquirer)

Dora Maule won't forget her $130 ticket.

And her husband, Jimmie, won't forget his.

"I was on speaker!" she said.

He was over the Delaware River on a bridge.

Yet, like many other motorists, they found out first-hand that New Jersey has gotten serious about reducing the dangerous yet defiant use of handheld phones by drivers.

Tickets have soared eightfold since March 1, when the violation became a primary offense - meaning police no longer needed to see a different violation to pull a driver over.

Text-messaging and using other electronic devices such as BlackBerrys while driving were also banned.

On Tuesday, California will join New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and the District of Columbia in having the nation's strictest cell-phone statutes.

Pennsylvania could follow later this year.

In April, when Dora Maule, 32, of Woodbury, got stopped in Pitman, the officer ignored her claim about having her phone on speaker.

"He didn't care. He was so proud of himself," the special education teacher said. "... He had this grin, like, 'Ha ha, I got you!' "

It's not that she's cavalier about making calls, she said. She actually pulled over to phone the doctor's office - then got put on hold. So she started driving.

Her husband didn't pick up his cell until he was on the Commodore Barry Bridge, heading into Pennsylvania. He got stopped by Delaware River Port Authority police, who, it turns out, spokeswoman Danelle Hunter said, can enforce either state's laws anywhere on their bridges.

"He's mad about the ticket," Dora Maule said. "He was not happy."

At least, no points get added to a driver's record.

Today, the Maules have hands-free sets.

Thousands of Garden State travelers now have similar stories to tell.

In March, April and May, 34,762 cell-related tickets were written - nearly eight times the 4,451 for the same months last year, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

That's about $4 million extra revenue. It's not exactly a windfall, though, since during the 12 months ending last June, the state handed out 5.6 million tickets for moving and parking violations.

Whether certain towns or the state police are cracking down hardest can't easily be determined, because of how the state's records are kept, AOC spokeswoman Tammy Kendig said.

A check for Cherry Hill found 51 tickets issued to drivers for using phones during March, April and May, she said.

Mantua said it issued 10 phone tickets in May, much bigger Deptford only 4.

"I'm pleased that law enforcement is getting out and enforcing this law that will make our roads and highways safer," said Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester), who sponsored the measure to toughen the law in the state Assembly.

"People have to change their habits," he said. "They have to get those hands-free devices and keep their hands on the wheel."

New Jersey's law does permit handheld-phoning in emergencies or to report a crime, fire or other public danger to authorities.

Pennsylvania could follow New Jersey's path, if Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery) can find enough backing from fellow lawmakers.

Before the legislative session ends in November, a bill is expected out of the Transportation Committee to ban teenage drivers from using any phones, even hands-free.

If it does, Shapiro said he'd propose an amendment that would cover only handheld phones, but apply to all drivers.

"It's the right thing to do and it's long overdue," he said.

In 2006, more than 1,200 accidents in Pennsylvania involved someone on a handheld cell-phone, he said.

Currently, Pennsylvania is one of six states, including Massachusetts and Illinois, that leave such bans up to municipalities, according to the Governors Highway Safety Assocation.

Only a handful of Pennsylvania towns, including Conshohocken and West Conshohocken, have adopted such ordinances. But Conshohocken probably issued only one cell-phone ticket in the last year, because its violation is a secondary offense, Chief James Dougherty said.

A West Conshohocken official guessed the number there might be about 5 in two years.

Chicago's ban, on the other hand, has resulted in 25,000 tickets over the last three years, according to a Chicago Sun-Times story.

Starting July 1, Washington state will make using a handheld phone while driving a secondary offense. More than a dozen others have bans that apply just to teens.

But are drivers paying attention to these laws?

"I'm seeing more people using hands-free devices, for sure," said Pam Fischer, director of New Jersey's Division of Highway Traffic Safety. "But we're still seeing people who are not obeying the law."

At a Mount Ephraim WaWa, five guys chatting over morning coffee in the parking confessed: Sure, they use handheld phones while driving - while keeping an eye out for police.

"We're sneaks. They haven't caught us yet," said Mike Tovinsky, 49, a Mount Ephraim union insulator and bartender.

"Now the texting is out of hand," he added. "That's ridiculous."

Yet, fellow insulator Jack Driver, 54, of Lindenwold, liked the ban, because too many drivers talk on their phones.

"I honestly do," he said. "It's too distracting. I don't think people realize how distracting it is."

Indeed, drivers having phone conversations are four times as likely to have an accident - even with hands-free devices, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"You're still distracted," said Fischer, head of New Jersey's safety-promotion agency. "... You stop scanning the road, and you stop scanning the mirrors. You have tunnel vision."

Her advice: Those who choose to call while driving should "do it hands-free" and "make it as quick as possible.""Hang up and get back to driving, which is the only thing that you should be doing when you're behind the wheel."


Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.