WILKES-BARRE — In Pennsylvania, all drivers are prohibited from using a cellphone or other electronic device to send, read or write a text-based communication while his or her vehicle is in motion.
Violators face a fine of $50 plus court costs and other fees.
Is the penalty enough to stop people of all ages from texting while driving?
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, said the statistics on distracted driving are “sobering and real.” He said legislation such as Senate Bill 786, which he co-sponsored, would strengthen Pennsylvania’s distracted-driving laws. The bill is awaiting further action.
“The new legislation would prohibit novice drivers, age 16 and 17, from using cellphones while driving,” Yudichak said. “If enacted, the legislation will help save lives and leverage federal distracted-driving incentive grants to more aggressively address distracted driving in Pennsylvania.”
The 2016 statistics from AAA Mid-Atlantic on distracted driving are eye-opening:
• Over 37,000 people died in automobile accidents in the United States, and distractions contributed to more than 5,000 of those fatalities (about 14 percent).
• 421,000 people were injured in crashes involving a driver who was distracted in some way.
• Driving while using a cellphone reduces brain activity by 37 percent.
• Drivers who send text messages are eight times more likely to be in a crash or near-crash as drivers who aren’t texting.
• Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting.
According to PA Courts InfoShare, a product of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, distracted-driving citations in the state have risen every year since 2012, to 3,336 in 2016.
Fewer than 1 percent of those citations, 53, were issued in Luzerne County.
Addressing the issue
Gov. Tom Wolf said he, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the State Police take distracted driving very seriously. The governor said texting while driving is one example, but distracted driving includes any activity that diverts drivers’ attention from their duties behind the wheel and is one of the leading causes of traffic accidents in the commonwealth.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, said there are various bills proposing additional restrictions on cellphone use, and most seem sensible and worthy of consideration.
“But even if all were approved, it would still be very difficult to enforce our way out of this problem,” Baker said in an email. “Anyone who spends time on the road sees widespread speeding, improper lane changes, failure to signal, failure to yield, tailgating, road rage and much more.”
Baker said a lot needs to be done to counter aggressive driving, and the same can be said for texting and driving.
“The tragic anecdotes and alarming statistics certainly must play a part in these public education efforts,” Baker said. “Simulators have long been used to educate people about the severe hazards of driving while impaired, and maybe that technology can be adapted to warn against texting while behind the wheel.”
Jana Tidwell, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said taking your eyes off the road for any reason is dangerous; however, mental distractions can last as long as 27 seconds.
Tidwell said AAA long has advocated for stronger distracted-driving legislation, including the complete texting ban that passed in 2011. She said AAA for years has encouraged lawmakers to consider the safety of all road users – motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists — by strengthening distracted-driving legislation to ultimately save lives.
“There is a culture of indifference for far too many drivers when it comes to road safety,” Tidwell said. “The vast majority of motorists believe they are more careful than others on the road, though most of them are not making safe decisions while behind the wheel. We’re asking every driver to make responsible decisions to make the roads safer for everyone.”
According to a AAA study, almost 90 percent of young millennials — defined by the organization as those between the ages of 19 and 24 — engaged in at least one risky behavior behind the wheel in the past 30 days, earning that group the top spot among the worst-behaved drivers in the nation.
Tidwell said more than 67 percent of all motorists admit to engaging in behaviors known to increase the risk of crash.
As disturbing as this is, she said, equally disturbing is the fact that the millennials behaving badly are hardly alone.
“Before you start finger-pointing, look in the mirror,” she said. “The study found the majority of drivers of all ages have also engaged in the same risky behaviors in the last 30 days.”
State Rep. Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, said she supports a complete ban on distracted driving. She is a co-sponsor of House Bill 1761, which would increase the $50 penalty for those found guilty of texting and driving. The bill currently is in the House Transportation Committee.
State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Kingston, said: “It only takes a moment of distracted driving to turn a vehicle into a deadly weapon.”
Kaufer listed several house bills that would address the use of hand-held devices while driving:
• HB1684 would prohibit calls on hand-held mobile telephones in Pennsylvania, except with the use of hands-free accessories, while operating a moving motor vehicle. The first offense for violating this law would be $50 and three points on a license, and $150 for a second or each subsequent offense. Talking on a cellphone while driving currently is legal in the state.
• HB1461 would prohibit cellphone use while driving.
• HB461 would allow municipalities to adopt local ordinances to prohibit the use of cellphones while driving.
• HB1761 would increase the penalties for texting while driving from $50 to $250, with an increase of $250 for subsequent offenses and a maximum fine of $750.
• HB892 would establish a $50 fine for distracted driving, including the use of electronic devices, grooming devices, food and drink, and printed material.
U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, acknowledged that distracted driving often has lethal and irreparable consequences, and can be just as dangerous as drunken driving. Cartwright said there were more than 127,000 distracted-driving traffic accidents in Pennsylvania in 2015 alone.
“I believe we can take measures to cut down on the number of traffic fatalities,” Cartwright said. “This includes increased education, as well as giving our law enforcement agencies the resources they need to enforce our laws.”
Cartwright said that while rules and regulations pertaining to distracted driving are primarily a state issue, there is some work that can be done in Congress. For instance, Cartwright co-sponsored the Vision Zero Act in the last congressional session.
If passed, the bill would award grants for municipalities to develop plans to eliminate transportation-related fatalities and injuries within 10 years.
As part of the Pennsylvania State Police’s commitment to safe driving, troopers conducted more than 1,600 driver education presentations in 2016. The presentations are offered at no charge to schools, community groups and businesses by state police community-service officers. To request a presentation, contact your local state police barracks or visit www.psp.pa.gov.
J.J. Abbott, the governor’s press secretary, said PennDOT is working with statewide and regional safety partners, state and local law enforcement, the health-care industry, and entities such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Governors Highway Safety Association to make the traveling public safer.
This year, the new Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP) was released to build on the momentum achieved by the state’s previous strategic plans. It outlines existing and new strategies that can be applied throughout the state, and targets priority focus areas that have the most influence on improving highway safety.
The SHSP was developed and implemented in coordination with PennDOT’s stakeholders and partners from the public and private sector.