Call for safety: Pa. must ban drivers’ use of hand-held phones

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Police in Pennsylvania need a stronger tool so they can enforce the state’s ban on texting while driving.

In the past 12 months, police issued 1,206 citations statewide, 96 fewer than the previous year when the prohibition went into effect. The numbers are appallingly low considering that Pennsylvania has nearly 9 million licensed drivers. The number of citations issued was significantly lower than the 55,000 texting violations handed out in New York, a state with 11 million drivers.

Unfortunately, there is a simple explanation for Pennsylvania’s poor performance. Drivers in New York aren’t allowed to text or talk on hand-held cell phones while driving. If police see drivers using hand-held phones in states where only texting is banned, it can be more difficult to prove the person was texting rather than dialing.

Despite the obvious dangers of distracted driving that are exhibited on a daily basis by motorists who put social networking ahead of safety, only 12 states — New York among them — outlaw both practices. Another 30 states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that deal only with texting.

It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that the same driver who must look away from the road in order to send a text message must take the same action in order to punch in a phone number on a hand-held cell phone.

In 2011, when the Legislature passed and Gov. Tom Corbett signed the texting ban, they gave Pennsylvanians only half the protection that they need from this pervasive form of distracted driving, and they gave police only limited enforcement capabilities.

Senate Bill 1289, introduced on March 14, would remedy this problem by making it illegal for motorists to use hand-held cell phones while driving. Sen. Jay Costa, a Forest Hills Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the measure, which wisely would impose further restrictions on the state’s youngest drivers; those under the age of 18 could not use hands-free calling devices while driving either. The bill would not restrict hands-free calling by those 18 or older, and the proposal contains necessary exceptions for emergencies and for hand-held phone usage by police officers and other emergency personnel.

It’s time to go all the way down the road toward safe practices and ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

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