Study finds 1 in 5 N.J. drivers distracted ahead of new awareness campaign

Drivers are shown on their way to Seaside Heights

Drivers are shown on their way to Seaside Heights, N.J. (Bas Slabbers for WHYY, file)

According to a new study from Rowan University, 1 in 5 New Jerseyans do not keep their eyes on the road.

The study, released Friday, found that at any given time, more than 20% of drivers on certain roadways were driving distracted. The biggest distraction continues to be handheld cell phones.

“It is killing us and injuring us at roughly the same pace that it has for the last 10 years,” said Joel Feldman, president of the Casey Feldman Foundation and its End Distracted Driving campaign, who described distracted driving as “an epidemic.”

“If you think about it, the carnage on our highway from distracted driving, particularly for our kids, is worse now than it is for drunk driving,” he added.

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The study was commissioned by the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety. It also found there have been at least 500 fatal crashes each year since 2010 due to distracted driving. This includes drivers who were eating, drinking, changing their car radio — not just using cell phones. That accounts for 25% of all fatal crashes, more than Pennsylvania and New York combined.

New Jersey has banned texting and handheld cell phone use while driving. It also banned cell phone use by any driver under 21 years old, drivers with probationary licenses, and school bus drivers.

Feldmann said it helps document that distracted driving is more prevalent than previously known.

“Hopefully this will help in getting people to look at this problem,” he said.

The study was released as National Distracted Driving Awareness Month began. It looks at distracted driver behavior and identifies key factors that contribute to it.

“The report is very dense,” said Eric Heitmann, director of the division within the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. “There are a lot of statistics out there about crash rates and crashes involving distracted driving and … resulting from distracted driving.”

Heitmann said professors at the university came to the division with the idea of doing an observational study, focusing on six corridors in the state.

“[They] want to physically see how many people are actually driving distracted,” he said.

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The education component

Feldman’s daughter, 21-year-old Casey, was killed in a crash in 2009 after being hit by a distracted driver. Ever since then, he has given talks to schools, businesses, and others on reasons to put their phone down.

During his presentations, Feldmann shows a video of a bus driver doing paperwork  “not even holding on to the wheel.” Adults and kids have different reactions to the video.

“Moms and dads and businesses look at it, they say it’s dangerous and it’s reckless,” he said. “You know what the kids say? They say it’s selfish and disrespectful, and I’ve never had a parent say selfish or disrespectful.”

Feldmann adds that education is his bias when studies like the one from Rowan are released.

“There’s a little part of me that says, ‘well, okay, we know it’s problem; now we know it’s a little bit worse than we thought,” he said. “But what have you added to the arsenal to fight distracted driving?”

Feldmann along with Heitmann points out that distracted driving is a nationwide problem. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,142 people were killed in crashes due to distracted driving.

The state launched its annual distracted driving campaign Friday that will be seen throughout April. This year’s theme is “take control of your destiny.”

“The whole point is we just want everyone to live, to realize their dreams and this campaign aims at reminding people what’s at stake every time they get behind the wheel,” Heitmann said. “Folks are going to see and hear messages like ‘your dreams are in reach, your phone shouldn’t be,’ and ‘driving without distractions makes everyone’s journey safer.’”

Feldmann is also focusing on a message campaign, but for a much younger demographic. His foundation just signed a contract with Harvard University to research what is the best way to inform young people about the dangers of distracted driving.

Following research that will include interviews, focus groups, and advisory panels, he said “the best high school filmmakers” will be hired to create the messages that will be tested “just to make sure we got it right.”

“We want kids to develop the messages, we want kids to fill in the messages and we want kids to film it in a way that will be receptive and will resonate with other kids,” Feldmann said.

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