Image: Richard J. Codey
Mike Derer  /  AP
Acting New Jersey Gov. Richard J. Codey, center, holds up a bill he signed at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., on July 22, 2008, that would make New Jersey residents getting driver's licenses decide whether they will be an organ donor.
updated 7/23/2008 11:31:42 AM ET 2008-07-23T15:31:42

In five years, New Jersey residents seeking driver’s licenses will have to decide whether they want to become organ donors under a new first-of-its kind law.

The names of residents who want to be organ donors will be maintained in a state registry, while those who decide against organ donation will have to acknowledge reviewing information about it.

“Ultimately, we want to move this important conversation out of the emergency room, where illness and injury already create a profound burden, and into the living room, where a thoughtful and deliberate decision can be reached without the pain of loss looming on the horizon,” said Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, who signed the bill into law Tuesday. Codey was filling in for Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who was in Israel.

Howard M. Nathan, president and CEO of the Gift of Life Donor Program, has said New Jersey would be the first state to impose such requirements.

The state has five years to get the program up and running. People who currently have licenses won’t have to make their decision until they apply for a renewal. Individuals who aren’t ready to decide may designate a decision-maker on their behalf.

The law, known as the New Jersey Hero Act, also makes the state the first to incorporate mandatory organ donation education into the high school curriculum, beginning with the 2009-10 school year.

At the collegiate level, institutions of higher education will be required to provide information on New Jersey’s organ donor policies through student health services.

“We’re raising the dialogue about organ donation and ensuring that New Jerseyans talk to their loved ones about the possibility of becoming a donor,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale, a bill sponsor.

Cathleen Lewis, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, said about 1.75 million New Jersey residents have checked the organ donation box when applying for either a license or an identification card. That’s 24.5 percent of the state’s licenses and ID cards.

About 99,000 people in the United States await organ donations, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, including 3,050 in New Jersey.

Since 1995, more than 85,000 Americans have died waiting for an organ, including nearly 1,900 New Jerseyans, according to the network.

A recent national report card prepared by the educational group Donate Life America shows a 10 percent increase in donor designations over the last 18 months, bringing the total number of registered donors in the United States to nearly 70 million.

According to the group, 35 percent of licensed drivers and ID card holders have committed themselves to donation through a state registry or motor vehicle department.

“By increasing outreach and education, all New Jerseyans will be able to make better-informed decisions regarding organ and tissue donation,” Assemblyman John F. McKeon said. “Ensuring every resident knows the vital importance of organ donation will make it easier for many more people to take the simple but truly heroic step that can help save a life.”

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