BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie Friday signed known as Jessica Rogers’ Law that allows for increased criminal penalties for bodily harm caused through the aggressive operation of a motor vehicle, an action commonly known as "road rage."
The legislation (S-1468) was crafted in response to a 2005 automobile accident involving a “road rage” incident that left a 16-year-old Hamilton girl, Jessica Rogers, requiring 24 surgeries and ultimately paralyzed from the chest down.
Because existing laws do not provide what officials believe adequate penalties for aggressive drivers who cause injuries, the Rogers family advocated strongly for passage of the bill to increase the penalties for incidents of road rage.
"As a parent, Jessica Rogers' story hits close to home,” Christie said at a Statehouse bill-signing gathering. “It is the story of the worst fears we have for our children realized – when they are seriously harmed because of another person’s recklessness. Through the actions of an enraged driver, tragedy was levied on the Rogers family and justice was left out of reach because the laws of our state were not adequate to appropriately prosecute the crime.
"That is why today I am proud to sign this legislation that honors the fight of Jessica and her family over the past 7 years by fixing our laws,” the governor added. “ This bill enables our law enforcement officials to treat incidents of road rage that cause senseless harm as they should be – as serious and preventable crimes that cannot be tolerated."
Prior to the enactment of Jessica Rogers’ Law, the crime of assault by auto or vessel was committed when a person operated a vehicle or craft in a reckless or impaired manner and bodily injury resulted. Accordingly, a “road rage” incident causing injury was charged merely as a fourth-degree crime even if it caused serious bodily injury. Injuries considered less than “serious” were charged as a disorderly persons offense.
The new law upgrades the offense of assault by auto or road rage that causes serious bodily injury – injury that causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or a loss or impairment of a body part or organ – to a third degree offense which is punishable by three to five years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $15,000. The law increases the penalty for assault by auto that causes any bodily injury to another – such as pain, illness or an impairment of physical condition – to a fourth degree offense which is punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
Under the law, a person is guilty of operating an automobile in an aggressive manner directed at another vehicle if bodily injury results. This driving is known as “road rage.” Aggressive manner includes, but is not limited to, unexpected altering of speed, erratic and improper lane changes, disregarding traffic control devices such as stop signs and lights, failing to yield the right of way, or following another vehicle too closely.
The new law creates a provision in the assault statute for the purposeful operation of an auto or vessel in an aggressive manner directed at another vehicle. Under the law, such operations that result in serious bodily injury will be prosecuted as third-degree crimes, and incidents resulting in less serious injuries will be prosecuted as fourth-degree crimes.
The legislation was sponsored by Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) and Assembly members Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), Daniel Benson (D-Mercer) and Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester).
“Any driver who allows their rage to control their actions behind the wheel essentially turns their vehicle into a deadly weapon,” DeAngelo said. “A simple slap on the wrist or ticket can no longer do. In the most densely populated state in the nation, we’re bound to encounter frustrating driving situations from time-to-time. I hope this law will serve as a wake-up call for drivers to lighten up and help avoid future tragedies.”
“Road rage is more than just an attitude; it can be a real threat to others. Drivers who senselessly disregard the safety of the public must be held accountable,” Benson added. “We’ve seen how one person’s senseless behavior irreparably altered the life of a young woman. Hopefully this new law will help give other’s pause before they consider doing the same.”