TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The New Jersey Assembly approved bills Thursday that would toughen driver's license requirements for young people and would allow a driver's use of a cellphone in traffic accidents to factor into criminal charges.
A Senate panel also discussed a measure that would change the way the state deals with drunken drivers.
The Assembly voted 79-0 for a bill that would make it easier to convict drivers of vehicular homicide or assault by auto when they kill or injure someone while using a cellphone. The legislation would classify the illegal use of a hand-held cellphone as driving recklessly, one of the factors in finding a person guilty of vehicular homicide or assault.
Lawmakers say it's currently difficult to hold drivers criminally accountable when they kill or injure someone while using a cellphone. The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee approved an identical bill last month.
Assemblywoman Annette Quijano said such tragedies are made worse for the families of those victims because of the carelessness involved.
"Hopefully, these stiffer penalties will be a wake-up call to drivers who are willing to put their own life, as well as those of innocent other people, at risk," she said.
The Assembly also voted 52-26 for a measure stiffening requirements a young person must meet to obtain a driver's license, even though Gov. Chris Christie vetoed an identical bill earlier this year.
Under the bill, applicants under the age of 18, seeking a learner's or examination permit — and at least one of their parents — would have to complete a teen driver program. The measure also requires drivers under 21 to log 50 hours of practice driving before getting a probationary license.
Drivers ages 16 to 20 would have a permit for a year, rather than six months. And the bill requires the current six hours of certified driving instruction to be one-on-one instruction.
The Senate has yet to consider the measure.
Assemblyman Albert Coutinho said it's not easy driving in one of the most congested state's in the country.
"These enhanced requirements will help keep everyone safer, both the teens learning to navigate behind the wheel and everyone else on the road, as well," he said.
Also Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee discussed, but delayed voting on, a measure that would relax penalties for drunken driving and allow convicted offenders to get restricted permits for work-related driving, which supporters said would ultimately cut down on drunken driving.
While the bill in its current form would lower fines, jail time and license suspension lengths for DUI offenders, supporters said it would make the roads safer through stiffer requirements involving ignition interlock devices. The devices can be installed in vehicles, and require a breath test before the vehicle can be started and at random times while driving.
Committee chairman Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the bill's primary sponsor, said the measure is a step in the right direction but needs more work. Scutari said the ultimate goal is to safeguard the public from drunken drivers.
"Although that's its intention, it doesn't really do it," said Scutari, a Democrat. "What we want to do is move to a more scientific way of ridding our roads of drunk driving without unnecessary penalties, but having the maximum prohibitive and protective effect on the public."