Vexing texting: The state’s distracted driving law is toothless

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Two years ago when the state’s texting while driving law took effect, many Pennsylvanians knew it was flawed. In fact, when the Legislature passed the bill we called it “half a loaf.”

Maybe the Post-Gazette was being too generous.

By April 2014 everyone has seen the law in action but no one, it appears, seems ready to say it is effective. The law aimed at distracted driving has done little to curb the big distraction — using hand-held cell phones for calls while operating a motor vehicle.

What the statute outlawed was sending, receiving or reading a text message while driving. Since it is a primary offense, police may pull over a motorist when they suspect this violation alone; it need not be accompanied by other offenses. Drivers found guilty are eligible for a $50 fine.

The problem, as reported Monday by the Post-Gazette’s Jon Schmitz, is officers have a difficult time telling if motorists are texting, which is illegal, or accessing a phone number, which is not. As a result, only 251 citations have been written in Allegheny County since the law’s inception — about 10 per month. Yet a person can stand at a Downtown intersection and see more than that many drivers ride by, cell phone in hand, in 30 minutes.

The law seems almost booby-trapped to impede enforcement. Police are not permitted to look at a driver’s phone during a traffic stop to see if it was used for a text and, although texting is banned while a car is moving, it is permitted while stopping, say, for a red light.

We knew it from the start, but we’re more convinced than ever that the only way to end the hazards of distraction due to hand-held cell phones is to forbid their use while driving. Senate Bill 1289, which was introduced last month, would do that, without limiting hands-free calling by drivers age 18 and older.

That’s the road the Legislature needs to travel to replace this bad law with something good.

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