A bill under consideration by the New Jersey state legislature is exactly why Americans have declining faith in government. New Jersey is a state where a record number of residents live in poverty, but lawmakers, on top of continuing to cut and underfund programs for the poor, are now sponsoring a proposed law that would use policing to squeeze revenue out of its already hurting population.
New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, and Nicholas Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson, have proposed bill A1908 to address the problem of distracted driving. The bill would prohibit “a driver from engaging in any activity, not related to the operation of the vehicle, in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle.”
The major problem with this bill is that the definition of distracted driving is incredibly broad and could include talking to passengers; personal grooming; adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player; and, yes, even drinking coffee (which has led many to refer to A1908 as the Coffee Ban Bill).
Keep in mind that New Jersey already has laws on the book against unsafe driving, careless driving, and reckless driving, as well as laws against the use of handheld cellphones and texting while driving. To me, bill A1908 seems like overkill.
Of course, distracted driving is a problem. In fact, in 2014 distracted driving caused more than 3,000 vehicular fatalities and more than 430,000 injuries. However, I don’t think this law is only about increasing public safety. It’s no secret that many state and municipal governments around the country are hurting for money.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that drivers in violation of A1908 would face steep fines. In fact, the law calls for fines of $200 to $400 for the first offense and $400 to $600 for a second offense. A third or subsequent offense could mean a fine of $600 to $800 and up to a 90-day license suspension and possible motor vehicle points. (Keep in mind that New Jersey has the country’s third highest long-term unemployment rate.)
Interestingly, Maine and Utah both have similar laws, but the fees are a fraction of those proposed in the New Jersey bill. Drivers who violate Utah’s law are fined $114, plus a $50 court surcharge, and pay an additional surcharge of 35 percent of the fine. In Maine, a distracted driver ticket will run you $119 and two motor vehicle demerit points, in addition to the penalty for other traffic infractions the motorist may have committed.
Not surprisingly, the New Jersey bill would distribute 50 percent of the collected fine proceeds to the city or municipality where the violation occurred, and the other 50 percent to the state treasurer. The money collected by the state treasurer would be used for public education campaigns to educate the public about the dangers of texting while driving. The bill doesn’t provide an explanation of how cities will use the revenue.
Again, there are already several laws in place to take unsafe drivers off the road. To me, this bill seems like another way to separate citizens from their hard-earned cash. It is an uncomfortable setup that uses policing to generate additional revenue, much like the Justice Department found in Ferguson, Missouri.
With the appeal of increased revenue, the Coffee Ban Bill gives police officers carte blanche to pull citizens over. In a state with a checkered history of racial discrimination and a recent, and very public racial profiling case, this is a terrible combination. With all of the publicity that police abuse cases have received in the media in the past few years, it would seem unwise to provide additional opportunities for negative citizen and police officer interactions.
Public safety is at the top of most people’s minds nowadays. However, when I think about my safety, I am far more concerned about being shot by a lunatic with a gun than about the lady in the car next to me applying mascara during the stoplight on the way to the office. In essence, I need elected officials that are in touch with their constituents' real needs, not folks who are coming up with crafty ways to entwine law enforcement and economics on the backs of working people.
This is why it is so important to stay informed and to get out and vote. As the saying goes: “Bad officials are the ones elected by good citizens who do not vote.” The same goes for bad laws. And let’s be clear — the Coffee Ban Bill is a bad law because it is predatory and dangerous. It is a terrible precedent for states to start and for others to adopt.
Distracted driving is indeed an important issue today. However, our lawmakers and law enforcement should be more concerned with the pressing issues currently facing our communities and nation. Let’s all pay attention to that.