The animated debate pitted councilmen John Bueckner and Michael Grecco against Mayor Dennis Elwell and several other councilmen over the wisdom of having the town council institute a ban on cellular telephone use - rather than waiting for the state to implement its own ban.
"We've waited for more than a year and half for the state to move on this," said Bueckner, who proposed the ban in 2001 but withdrew his request when a state law seemed imminent. "But the state has not acted, and I feel we should send a message that we're going to do something if the state does not."
Grecco echoed these sentiments. "We should take the lead on this," he said. "It is a matter of safety."
Corcoran said his concern about a local ordinance was not so much about enforcement, but fairness to drivers.
"Sure, we can enforce the law here," he said. "But how can we issue tickets to people coming into town when they can use the cell phones nearly everywhere else? Make no mistake about this; I'm against drivers using cell phones - even the hand-free kind. It is a distraction and it does pose a danger. I'm just not sure we should be enforcing a law here when someone driving along the Turnpike can use their phone, or just across the river in Rutherford."
Gov. James E. McGreevey has promised to sign a ban on cellular telephone use by drivers since he took office two years ago, but has not yet moved on the matter. But the state Department of Transportation has been asked to make recommendations on what the ban should look like, and a state commission is also being formed to study the whether nor it poses a distraction.
A ban that was being considered by the state several years ago was to only apply for drivers under 18.
If New Jersey implemented a stronger ban, it would be only the second state to impose strict restrictions on holding cell phones while driving - although the idea is being opposed strongly by a variety of motorist organizations in the state. Those groups have cited a University of North Carolina study showing cell phones as one of the least common causes of serious accidents - while drivers seeking to change CDs or tune the radio pose more of a risk. Another study conducted by English researchers at the Transport Research Laboratory said that the reaction times of people driving while talking on cell phones were worse than those of drunk drivers. Following up this study, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis concluded in December of 2002 that the use of cell phones by drivers may result in approximately 2,600 deaths, 330,000 moderate to critical injuries and 1.5 million instances of property damage in America per year. Several polls conducted in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut by the independent Quinnipiac University have found consistently high levels of support for such measures.
The state currently requires police to note if cellular telephone use is considered a factor in a crash. And the only current restriction is against provisional drivers, such as those for school and regular buses. Commercial trucks are banned from using cellular telephones.
Although New York is the only state that has actually passed a ban, Arizona and Massachusetts are considering instituting the ban, permitting use only with hands-free devices.
U.S. Senator Jon Corzine from New Jersey has proposed federal legislation that would cut off federal highway funds to states that do not enact a cell phone ban - similar to laws currently used to force states to enact tough drunk driving legislation.
Corzine's bill would leave up to the states whether to allow use of certain "hands-free" mobile phone devices.
So far in New Jersey, a handful of municipalities have enacted local bans on cell phone use, Chief Corcoran told the Town Council. "Bloomfield and Nutley have had limited success. I know that Paramus is considering it," he said. Marlboro was the fifth municipality in the nation to regulate cellular use when it enacted its restriction in 2000.
Hard to enforce
Deputy Mayor John Reilly said he preferred to trust to the chief's professional opinion, and saw a serious enforcement problem.
"We have hundreds of thousands of cars passing through here," he said. "Just looking at traffic the other day, I saw every four or five cars someone was talking on a cell phone. It would be tough to enforce with so many people coming from so many places where it is legal. Even if we put up signs, we can't expect people to read them."
Bueckner countered, "We put up 25 mile-an-hour signs and ticket people if they drive faster than that."
However, Corcoran said the town would not try to impose the restriction on the Turnpike or Route 3. A Secaucus ban would focus on those driving on town streets, not the highways.
"My main concern is that so few municipalities in the state have enacted bans," Corcoran said. "I think enforcement needs to be consistent - which is why I think the state should impose the ban so that everyone knows it is illegal."
Corcoran said he already instituted a ban on police officers talking on cell phones, for several reasons.
"First of all, I noticed they were spending too long on the cell phones," he said, noting that some officers were talking on cell phones for a long as a half hour. But he also believed it was a safety issue and felt it distracted from driving.
Corcoran said his research showed that only one accident in town could be directly linked to cellular telephone use, when a woman in the outlet district dropped the telephone while driving and struck a parked car while seeking to recover the telephone from the floor.
One councilman referred to a serious accident that occurred on Second Street and Centre Avenue nearly crippling a girl a few months ago, but public safety officials could not find cellular telephone use involved.
"I am not willing to sacrifice one person," Bueckner said. "I want us to get the message out and instill in people that they cannot drive in Secaucus while talking on a cellular telephone. I have no confidence the state is going to move on this."
Elwell, reluctant to move ahead on the issue before the state had a chance to act, asked if Bueckner would be satisfied in passing a resolution in support of the ban.
Grecco, siding with Bueckner, said the town needed to send a message to the state and that the best way is to pass a ban.
Elwell asked the council to consider passing a resolution in support of a state ban.
"We tried that," argued Grecco. "No body listened."
Elwell said, "We sent a letter. We could tell the governor that if the state does not act in 30 to 60 days, then we would consider imposing a ban here."
Town Administrator Anthony Iacono said the town could begin a campaign to drum up support by sending the resolution to local state legislators, the governor and to all the other municipal governing bodies throughout out the state.
Elwell said that if the state does not respond in a timely manner, the town could move ahead with local ordinance.
Grecco and Bueckner agreed. The town attorney will draw up a resolution that would be voted on at the March 11 meeting.