Pa. should take its cue from N.Y.
Texting while driving is so distracting that it is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol, according to researchers at Virginia Tech University. Their research has found that a driver's chance of being in a collision while texting is 23 times greater than during normal driving.
Yet, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 660,000 drivers nationwide are driving while using hand-held cellphones or manipulating other electronic devices at any given daylight moment - a stunning 5 percent of all drivers.
Pennsylvania was late to the game in banning texting while driving, outlawing it at the beginning of 2012. And the law has proved extremely difficult to enforce because it does not ban use of hand-held cellphones by drivers. Thus, police observing a driver using a device can't readily tell if the driver is texting or dialing a number for a voice call. Both are distracting, but the law outlaws only texting.
That's why for all of 2012, police agencies statewide, including state police, issued only about 1,300 citations for texting while driving.
Pennsylvania should follow the lead of neighboring New York, in two ways.
First, the Legislature should ban use of hand-held devices by drivers, as New York does. Although studies show that hands-free cellphone use also is distracting, because speakers tend to focus straight ahead rather than scanning peripherally and checking mirrors, it at least would enable police to act when they see someone manipulating a hand-held device.
New York also is among the first states to designate specific police patrols to thwart driving texters. Under its Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement program, 32 unmarked SUVs patrol state roads with troopers looking for erratic driving behavior indicating texting. According to The New York Times, patrols issued 5,553 citations in their first two months of operation this summer.
Pennsylvania should become the 13th state to ban hand-held cellphone use by drivers and then become more aggressive in enforcing it, to ensure it is among the leaders in highway safety.