NORTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Just two weeks into his career as a North Plainfield Police Officer, Frank Steinhauser had his first undercover assignment. Dressed as North Plainfield Public Works staff on the side of Route 22 at the entrance to the Costco, Steinhauser watched for people driving while on the phone or texting and called ahead to chase cars who then pulled the drivers over.
“In the first hour, I’ve called in more than 20 distracted drivers,” said Steinhauser, who then saw a driver texting and notified his sergeant on the walkie talkie.
What’s makes these numbers surprising is that so many people continued to violate the states laws on using electronic devices in the car despite it being heavily publicized by North Plainfield Police Chief William Parenti.
“There was a radio station bashing us for making the public aware of the distracted driving efforts, saying it was stupid to tell people ahead of time,” said Parenti. “But despite all the warnings we still pulled over four people in the first minute we were out here.”
The program lasted for two hours and wrote tickets or warnings for 44 people. Some people pulled over were able to demonstrate that they were just holding their phone by showing no calls or texts recorded on their phone.
Parenti said that they would have pulled over many more, but he only assigned four chase cars to the effort and when they were all giving out tickets other drivers were getting away with it. Often the Sheriff's department sends a few cars to help out, but they had funeral duty today and were unable to spare additional resources.
The traffic stops in North Plainfield are part of Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano’s “Put it Down” campaign, a month long effort to generate public awareness of the dangers of distracted driving as part of the national “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.”
“People suggested we’re doing this to raise money,” said Parenti. “But this is about safety, about making people aware how risky it is to text or talk and drive.”
Driving while holding a cell phone or texting creates three issues with safely driving: 1) it takes the driver’s eyes off the road; 2) it takes the driver’s hands off the steering wheel; and 3) it takes the driver’s attention off the road.
“Add those three together and you have a distracted driver who is not going to see that car stop unexpectedly in front of them,” said Parenti, pausing. “Or the child running out into the road.”
The “Put It Down” campaign is similar to the “Click It or Ticket” campaign that has so effectively increased seat belt usage in the United States. Parenti says that before the campaign and laws requiring seat belt use only eight percent of people wore them, but after a decade of public stops and awareness campaigns the number rose above 85 percent.
“We’re hopeful that these distracted driving efforts will have a similar effect,” said Parenti.
In New Jersey it is illegal for any driver to hold a handheld device or text while operating a vehicle, and bus and novice drivers are forbidden from even talking on cell phones under any circumstance. For other drivers using electronic devices with hands free technology is legal in New Jersey and other states.
“If your business requires you to take phone calls in your vehicle then you need to get a hands free system,” said Parenti. “If it’s important to them there are still ways to do business and obey the law.”
To put the need to put the phone down in perspective, the US Department of Transportation notes that the average time a driver’s eyes come off the road to read a text is five seconds, which at 55 mph – the speed limit on Route 22 – would be like driving the length of a football field blindfolded. It takes even longer to dial a phone.
Parenti is particularly worried about future technology making it impossible for police to identify drivers using electronic communications. He mentioned Google Glass, a small computer that is look like glasses and presents information directly into the users’ eyes.
“Google Glasses are distinctive enough that police officers can see when someone is using them,” said Parenti. “But there are companies out there trying to put that technology into glasses that look like every other pair. Police will have no way to identify people breaking the law.”
Parenti has spoken to Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-16) about drafting legislation that would get ahead of the technology. He suggested that technology companies will need to work with the government to implement protections against distracted driving such as meters that measure wheel speed and shut off technology when a vehicle is moving.
“Many cars already prevent people from adjusting their GPS while the car is moving,” said Parenti.
North Plainfield holds traffic stops to look for distracted driving, seat belt use and drunk driving two times a month in various areas of the town. The police publicize these stops twice a year for “Click It or Ticket” and “Put It Down” in an effort to raise awareness in the public. The remainder of the traffic stops are not announced ahead of time.