New Jersey would become the first state to require anyone getting or renewing a driver's license to choose whether to register as an organ donor, under a bill a Senate committee approved yesterday.

The measure, called the New Jersey Hero Act, also would make the state the first to require high schools' health classes to teach the importance of organ donation.

State officials say 37 percent of the state's drivers -- 1.6 million -- have voluntarily registered with the Motor Vehicle Commission to become organ donors. The bill (S755) would take it a step further, requiring anyone applying for a new or renewed driver's license to complete a form answering "yes" or "no" to organ donation, and requiring the MVC to create a database of willing donors.

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee unanimously approved the bill over the objections of the MVC, which said it currently lacks the money and technology to comply.

Supporters of the bill note 4,244 state residents are waiting for an organ transplant, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. The Senate committee's chairman, Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who is sponsoring the bill, says the measure should help drive up the number of potential donors.

Within five years, drivers who choose to donate would have that information included in a database created by the MVC, the bill says. The database, to be called the Donate Life NJ Register, would be interactive, allowing people to enlist as donors at any time.

Any driver who chose not to sign up as a donor would be urged to designate a decision-maker who could act on his or her wishes at the time of death, although the MVC would not record that person's name.

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) said: "We've found that many times people choose not to be a registered organ donor because they are afraid that if they go to the hospital in a life-threatening situation, a medical practitioner will not use every means to save them if they know the person is willing to donate their organs."

Under the bill, "you can keep that decision confidential and place it in the hands of ... someone you trust to make the right decision on your behalf."

A supporter of the bill, Kay Pittman Govito of Moorestown, said she unwittingly became her son David's decision-maker when he told her, before he left for basic training with the Marines, he wanted to be an organ donor.

Five years ago, David, 31, suffered a fatal head injury when he tried to break up an argument between a couple. Govito said her son's heart, liver and kidneys helped save four people's lives, which helped her cope with her loss.

"Were it not for that happenstance statement, I don't know if I would have made the right decision," Pittman Govito said after testifying at the committee hearing.

Denise Coyle, the MVC's chief of staff, said the commission supports the bill's intention, but she asked the committee to delay the measure until the next legislative session, which begins in January 2010.

"We have to focus more on our core mission: security, safety and services for drivers," Coyle testified.

Members of the committee not only refused to delay action, they eliminated an $80,000 appropriation included in the bill to create the database, at the urging of Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean), who said the MVC "has more money than God."

Vitale agreed the MVC could come back to the committee and ask for money if it couldn't absorb the cost of the project.

Over the last 10 years, 2,470 New Jersey residents have died while on the waiting list for an organ, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

One of them was Joseph Bottino, a 42-year-old husband and father of two who died from liver failure just over a year ago, on Feb. 11, 2007.

"The organ he so desperately needed was not available," his mother, Sandi Petrelli, told the committee. "Where were the donors? Did no one die in the region in the month of January?"