Editorial: Pennsylvania must take a stronger stance on texting and driving

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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Texting and driving is an epidemic that has culminated in thousands of deaths annually, leaving more than 3,000 people dead and 421,000 injured just this past year, according to federal highway studies.

For some states, such as New York, these demoralizing statistics have influenced lawmakers to tighten laws banning the use of interactive wireless communication devices in vehicles, with a particular emphasis on prohibiting all forms of texting and driving as well as providing officers with the tools to counteract texting and driving.

These measures, similar to measures 12 other states have taken, should become models Pennsylvania considers when amending its disgraceful texting and driving policies that are currently in place. Pennsylvania, a state that saw 194 distraction-related deaths among 23,059 crashes in 2008, has one of the nation’s most lax laws on using wireless handheld devices while driving — not including the nine states who don’t have laws regarding the issue at all. 

To take its enforcement a step further, New York has assigned highway troopers to a fleet of 32 Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement vehicles to catch drivers potentially using their handheld devices. These vehicles are inconspicuous, gray SUVs that sit higher than normal vehicles to allow officers to easily peer into cars to determine if drivers are  using their mobile devices.

Fortunately, there are a number of sensible measures Pennsylvania can enact in order to combat what has become a dangerous trend across the country.

First, the state legislature must consider proposing legislation to tighten existing laws. Rep. Joseph F. Markosek, D-Allegheny and Westmoreland, proposed to ban the use of handheld phones for all drivers. 

In an interview with Hands Free Info, Markosek said the current Pennsylvania laws are “woefully inadequate to protect people from drivers distracted by handheld devices.”

Currently, Pennsylvania only bans texting while driving, and if caught, the driver is issued a $50 fine with no other lasting penalties. Although more than 1,300 citations were issued since the law’s inception, 57 lives were still taken, which is simply unacceptable.

Second, Pennsylvania should pursue similar methods as New York to curb such violence by assigning police officers the tools and skills necessary to adequately search for wireless handset users.

The New York anti-texting unit has been able to write 5,553 tickets for texting and driving within the first two months of the program’s implementation over the summer.

The efforts by New York’s police force and state legislature should be welcomed by and inspiring for other states, especially Pennsylvania. Efforts to make such improvements need to happen now rather than later to ensure Pennsylvania’s commitment to protect its residents and provide safer roads.

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