AAA Mid-Atlantic on Monday kicked off a multi-year campaign designed to make cell phone use by drivers as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving.

The first phase of the “Don’t Drive Intoxicated, Don’t Drive Intexticated” effort seeks to get drivers to sign cards pledge to be safer.

“Our focus is on drivers who would never in a million years think it would be OK to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking but always find some reason or excuse to pick up the phone while they’re driving,” said Tracy Noble, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs.

Inattentive driving is the leading cause of New Jersey traffic fatalities – nearly 200 in 2017. It has been the leading cause of traffic fatalities in the state for six straight years.

Wendy Berk, vice president of the New Jersey Brain Injury Alliance, said she hears often from the drivers involved in such crashes that there are no second chances to go back and make a better decision.

“We do not want to see any more distracted drivers changing people’s lives or taking people’s lives,” Berk said.

Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Mercer, the chairman of the Assembly transportation committee, urged drivers to let the campaign serve as their wake-up call, rather than a near-miss or crash.

“We all know how we’ve rationalized in the past that one time, ‘Well, I had to pick up this one time.’ And it only takes one time for a tragedy to occur,” Benson said.

It’s already illegal to text and drive, but it’s still done often. Last year, during New Jersey’s federally funded ‘You Drive, You Text, You Pay’ enforcement effort, around 13,000 summonses were issued.

Eric Heitmann, the director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety, compared not handling a phone while driving to wearing a seatbelt – something not seen as important at first that comes to be common practice.

“Paying attention to traffic while driving is the next lesson we need to pass on to or kids,” Heitman said. “So when you get behind the wheel, be an example to your family and friends by putting the phone away. If you do it, they will, too.”

Charles Donato, whose daughter was killed in 2011 by a distracted driver using a cell phone two days before she was due to give birth, said kids can play a role, too.

“If you’re in a car with your mother or your father, and they’re driving you to school, and all of a sudden you see them pick up their phone because your mother needs to make a nail appointment or your father needs to answer an email for business, grab the phone out of their hand and shut it off,” he said.

Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, said she has an app on her phone that responds to texts while she’s driving, saying she’s unable to respond at that time.

“There are many apps that you can show as parents to your kids that it’s essential that they have these on their phone, including when there’s a phone call, ignoring the phone call when you are driving,” said Murphy.

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