With the start of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month comes the 2022 version of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety's "U Drive. U Text. U Pay." initiative, and a companion social and digital media campaign to remind Garden State motorists to put their phones down behind the wheel.

"U Drive. U Text. U Pay." was originally the brainchild of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to HTS Director Eric Heitmann, and New Jersey's strong distracted driving laws have led NHTSA to continue providing the state with annual funding for localized enforcement efforts.

Trickling down to HTS, that means around $1.6 million divided among more than 200 agencies around the state, for the entire month of April, to enable additional patrols and various checkpoints.

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In 2021, "U Drive. U Text. U Pay." yielded more than 8,000 citations in New Jersey for cell phone use or texting, HTS said, and over 4,300 for careless driving, numbers Heitmann said were up from 2020 because of COVID-19 travel reductions, but in line with previous years given the funding provided.

As distracted driving continues to claim more lives than any other cause on the roadways of the Garden State, Heitmann said, enforcement is key — but getting people to think about changing their driving behavior is also on officials' minds.

That's why HTS is also rolling out a new edition of its 2021 "Take Control of Your Destiny" publicity push, which is being called "Destiny 2.0" after the agency collaborated with Rowan University on a study that dove deep into the state's distracted driving statistics.

"What they found was at any given time, more than 20% of motorists on selected roadways were driving distracted," Heitmann said. "They found that driver distraction was higher on weekdays than on weekends, that handheld cell phones were the leading type of distraction."

The study, drawn from camera footage at fixed locations as well as on-board cameras on vehicles patrolling certain state highways, also discovered distractions were greater during "peak hours," 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 a.m., and that higher speed limits led to more distracting behaviors.

'No one's dreams include being a fatal crash statistic'

As in 2021, Heitmann said the "Destiny" campaign will focus on digital and internet advertisements, including on Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube, with the visual component depicting uniquely decorated steering wheels to signify that a driver controls not only their own destiny, but also that of others.

"We want everyone to live to realize their dreams by reminding people what's at stake every time they get behind the wheel. We want drivers of all ages to realize that their plans and dreams for the future depending on making safe choices when they're driving," Heitmann said. "Things like traveling, vacationing, weddings and special events, having a family, grandkids, and enjoying life — no one's dreams include being a fatal crash statistic."

'We really want to hear from everyone'

Heitmann said driving is not a "secondary task," and provided a rule of thumb for the road: Drive like you would want others to drive.

Anyone who wants more information on either "U Drive. U Text. U Pay." or "Destiny 2.0" can go to njsaferoads.com/destiny to join the conversation about this and future campaigns.

"We really want to hear from everyone, their comments, suggestions, ideas, anything," Heitmann said. "They should go to our website or any of our social media channels, like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, to let us know what their thoughts are."

Motorists caught using a handheld electronic device behind the wheel, with few, specific exceptions, are subject to a $200 to $400 fine for a first offense, with additional offenses increasing penalties to $800 and as many as three insurance points.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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