Jersey Tries to Put the Brakes on Bad Driving ; A First-in-the-Nation Law Imposes Criminal Penalties for Causing a Fatal Accident While Dozing at the Wheel

Article excerpt

Long-haul trucker Bill Nehrenz figures he's on the road about 310 days of the year. Every once in a while, he admits, he gets tired.

"Anytime that happens, I head right off to a safe spot to rest," says the Arrow Trucking driver as he sits on the side of a road planning his two-day, 16-hour trip to Lexington, Ky. "The old days of pushing it are over."

That's a message that the state of New Jersey hopes will spread to all the drivers on its highways, the most congested in the nation. Last week, the state became the first in the nation to allow prosecutors to charge a drowsy driver with vehicular homicide, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Going after weary drivers is just one of the ways New Jersey is trying to make its mean streets safer. The state now enlists drivers to report "aggressive drivers" by dialing #77. Six hundred calls a day are flooding in. Last month, Gov. James McGreevey signed legislation to designate some of its most dangerous highways "safe corridors," where fines for speeding and aggressive driving are doubled. And Mr. McGreevey is studying ways to cut down on other forms of driver distraction, such as using cellphones, eating food, or putting on makeup.

"We have the most densely traveled roads, some of the longest commutes, and highest insurance rates in the country," says Micah Rasmussen, a spokesman for the governor.

Part of the problem is cultural. With New Jersey's system of turnpikes, interstates, and parkways, residents always seem to have their foot pressed to the floor. "You sit in traffic so much that when you find open road, you go as fast as you can," says Dena Mottola, executive director of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. "Then, there is road rage because of the traffic."

Some of the residents, says Ms. Mottola, have picked up other bad driving habits. "Tailgating is the norm," she says.

The state is also a "corridor" state for the transshipment of goods. Every day, thousands of trucks come and go from the state's busy ports. Chemicals and other hazardous materials are routinely moved on its highways.

"The state has the ability to move goods away from its ports very quickly, which makes it very critical to New Jersey's economy," says Robert Paaswell, a professor at City College of New York and an expert on the New Jersey's transportation system. "But now we have reached a conflict: With all the congestion, will we get employees to work on time or goods to market on time?"

Roads are such an integral part of life in the Garden State that politicians have been known to get voted out over something as mundane as car insurance. "Many have made promises to lower rates, but few have tackled the long-term problems," says Mr. …


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