When it comes to making our roads safer - and saving our kids from themselves - the Pennsylvania Senate seems to be all thumbs.
Last month, the Senate amended a House bill so that driving while texting or talking would be a "secondary" offense -meaning police can't pull over a motorist solely for using a cell phone behind the wheel. The violation could only be charged if police stop the driver for another reason.
4COL! (That's "for crying out loud," senators.)
House Bill 67 - now back in the House in its amended version - is a hodgepodge of rules, mainly admirable, for teenage drivers. It sets limits on how many teens can ride with a driver who has a junior license or permit, for instance; experience shows that a carful of friends will tends to make young drivers more reckless.
One section of the bill bars anyone with a junior license or learner's permit from using a cell phone behind the wheel, unless the driver is calling an emergency number like 911. Violating that provision would have been a summary offense carrying a fine of $100.
Which is chump change, really. But then, in a 33-14 vote, the Senate watered down the impact of the legislation even more by tacking on an amendment, sponsored by Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County, that classifies the offense as secondary rather than primary.
Clearly the Senate needs the 411 on cell phones.
Increasingly, the weight of evidence demonstrates that cell phone use distracts drivers even more than other dangerous stuff we do in the car, even more than putting on your makeup or chowing down on a Big Mac and fries.
A Carnegie Mellon University study found that using a cell phone while driving cuts down the amount of brain activity devoted to driving by 37 percent. Drivers using phones or other hand-held devices are four times more likely to be injured in a crash, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The University of Utah reports that using a cell phone behind the wheel delays driver reactions as much as a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent - the legal limit for being charged with driving while intoxicated.
Not surprisingly, drivers younger than age 20 who use phones and other gadgets are most likely to be involved in fatal crashes, the federal Department of Transportation says. And as a Sunday News story last week pointed out, recent studies are indicating that risk-taking behind the wheel isn't limited to boys; more and more girls are doing dumb stuff too.
In ancient days - the 1990s - cell phones were only for talking. Now they're for texting, Web browsing and any other kind of app you can find for your smartphone. Talking while driving is bad enough; trying to type or tap or swipe behind the wheel is exponentially worse.
Lawmakers ought to crack down on cell phone use by banning hand-held devices for drivers of all ages. At minimum, teenage drivers, who simply don't have enough experience and are more likely to be talking or texting while driving, ought to be prohibited from using phones.
House Bill 67 made a half-hearted stab at this goal - although we'd recommend that instead of a wimpy $100 fine, the penalty ought to be loss of license or permit.
Now, with the Wozniak amendment, police wouldn't even have a pretext for pulling over a kid for phone use.
Nah, why don't we just wait until the kid crashes the car, and THEN fine him or her $100?
Driving is a privilege and not a right. Which means the state gets to set the rules determining how that privilege should be exercised. We urge the House not to concur with the Wozniak amendment but to tighten the talk-and-text rules instead.
Otherwise the Legislature will be like the texting acronym OTL: out to lunch.