EWING — New Jersey law enforcement officials are calling on members of the public to help them crack down on drivers who use their smart phones to text and email while they’re behind the wheel.

During a news conference at State Police Headquarters in West Trenton on Thursday, State Attorney General Chris Porrino announced the #77 system, a tool to report aggressive driving, is being expanded.

“Starting today we will be ready to receive reports, through #77, from civilians, of distracted driving,” he said.

“We are urging people who witness distracted driving on our roads or as pedestrians to report it through #77.”

Porrino stressed if you’re going to report someone using a cell phone, use your Bluetooth voice recognition system to make the call, or pull over to the side of the road — don’t make the call while you’re holding your phone while driving.

“I think it is very important to be clear that we must not have people distracted by reporting distracted drivers,” he said.

Porrino pointed out there were 604 traffic fatalities on New Jersey roads last year, an 8 percent increase from 2015.

“That’s an average of almost 12 deaths a week, and the increase we believe is directly attributable to distracted driving,” he said.

He explained if you spend 5 seconds reading or writing a text while driving at 65 miles an hour, you’ll go about the length of one and a half football fields.

“Five seconds doesn’t sound like a lot of time but going 65 mph it’s a long time to be distracted,” he said.

A day earlier in Howell, police said an 80-year-old driver blew through a stop sign because he was on his cellphone. He and his passenger were injured after a police cruiser — out on distracted-driving patrol — hit their sedan at the intersection.

Porrino said he sees drivers distracted by their cell phones every day.

“People are drifting in and out of lanes while they’re reading emails or writing responses or texting. It’s really not any different from reading a magazine or a newspaper article while you’re behind the wheel, and it’s scary, honestly. It’s terrifying,” he said.

He said anyone who reports a distracted driver should give the make, model and color of the vehicle, and the license number, if possible.

“Where we can dispatch a patrol vehicle to find the person who is engaging in this dangerous behavior, we will.”

He said if the distracted driver is not stopped and ticketed, and police are given the license plate of the vehicle being driven, a warning letter will be sent to the registered owner, informing them they were identified as a distracted driver.

“Our hope is that the letters will act as a warning and as a deterrent, letters will set forth the penalties that an individual who violates the statute will incur,” he said.

“We hope that by enlisting the public’s help that we will cause people to think twice before they text from behind the wheel.”

David Matthau, Townsquare Media NJ

In addition to the #77 program expansion, Porrino said an enforcement blitz has been initiated by the State Police.

“They’re setting up observation points and intersections and interchanges where they will physically look at drivers,” he said.

State Police Major Glen Szenzenstein says through grant funding by the Division of Highway Traffic Safety, 80 separate enforcement details will be out on highways and byways all month.

“They will involve troopers in roving patrols, troopers in unmarked units and troopers in plain clothes,” he said.

Porrino added more than 190 municipal and county law enforcement agencies are receiving $1.2 million in federal grants for their own local enforcement programs

“The text or the email can wait because a distracted driver is a deadly driver,” he said.

The #77 program was originally unveiled in 1995 as a tool to report aggressive driving on Garden State roads, and about 2,000 a month are received.

Richard Hammer, the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, said the connection between the rising popularity of mobile devices and the increase in highway deaths cannot be overlooked.

“The proliferation of the smart phones, the one that internet access and texting in one device, is proving to be a very dangerous combination and a very dangerous tool,” he said.

He also noted “every driver who gets behind the wheel of a car has to share in the responsibility of safety.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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