Enforcing laws against texting and driving has been notoriously difficult, and law enforcement agencies around the country have been trying different approaches. Florida’s Highway Patrol last month rolled out new patrol cars that are marked as cruisers but in more subtle ways — no light bars, and black paint — that allow troopers to target aggressive and distracted drivers, according to WFTS in Tampa.
New Jersey’s safety campaign follows an 8 percent jump in traffic fatalities that officials blame in part on distracted driving. But at least one news account says the Garden State’s #77 campaign promotes snitching. To which Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino says, so what?
“We want you to snitch,” he said in a telephone interview with The Post. “Snitch away. Just do it in a way that’s safe.”
Porrino said it’s no different than asking members of the public — or even offering them rewards — to step forward with information about a police matter. Whether it’s a minor or major offense, policing a community and keeping it safe always begins with the vigilance of its members and their willingness to cooperate with authorities, he said.
Porrino and other officials emphasize that they do not want people to violate the law while reporting a violation. If a driver has hands-free technology, the driver can legally make the report from the car while driving. If not, however, then they must pull over first or ask a passenger to make the call. Above all, officials say: “Only report what you see when it is safe to do so.”
By pressing #77, a person can make a call that’s routed first to the New Jersey State Police Regional Operations and Intelligence Center in West Trenton, and then to a local law enforcement agency so that police there can respond and issue summonses if possible. If the caller gets the license plate of the offender, law enforcement officials send warning letters with the time and place of the offense, and its potential penalties. A first offense carries a fine of $400. Subsequent offenses can eventually lead to an $800 fine and a 90-day license suspension.
In many instances, the warnings letters go to the parents of children who were driving the vehicle at the time. Porrinno said his hope is that parents do their part from there. (You can see what the form letter looks like here.)
New Jersey launched the campaign in response to a sharp increase in traffic fatalities. Traffic deaths increased to 604 in 2016 from 562 in 2015, an increase that Porrino said has been caused at least in part by a growing number of people who can’t resist using their smartphones while driving. So they decided to expand the state’s previous use of #77 to report aggressive drivers, a campaign in effect since 1995. It’s part of a broader campaign, funded in part by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, called UDrive. UText. UPay.
Porrino said he’s not worried that the program will make people into hypocrites who engage in distracted driving while reporting others.
“I feel like folks who are going to go through the trouble of making a complaint about someone out there distracted driving — I’d like to think they’re responsible enough to follow the law and our instruction, which is to be sure not to engage in distracted driving yourself by making the report,” he said.
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