texting driver

A driver uses a cellphone to send a text message in this file photo.

THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania House voted last week “to ban the use of hand-held phones for all drivers to make calls, although police would not be allowed to stop motorists for that reason alone,” The Associated Press reported in an article that appeared in Thursday’s LNP | LancasterOnline. Current state law carries a $50 fine for texting while driving. The pending bill would raise that to $150 for either texting or making calls while driving.

Let’s start with some encouraging news. In 2019, Lancaster County had the fewest number of traffic-related deaths since 1962, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Abigail King reported this month, using records from this newspaper, the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

It’s a trend we hope continues. We also hope a heightened awareness of traffic safety is finally taking hold in our county’s collective conscience.

There remain discussions over the best ways to keep this trend headed in a positive direction.

Some background: Since 2012, it has been illegal in Pennsylvania to use a cellphone to send or receive texts, emails or other electronic messages while driving. The penalty for the summary offense is $50, with no points on the offender’s license.

The law, however, doesn’t prohibit drivers from looking up a phone number, dialing or talking on a hand-held device.

Enforcement of that law, at least in Lancaster County, has been difficult. In a 2015 editorial based on an LNP | LancasterOnline investigation, we wrote: “Local police say it’s hard to enforce the law because one is allowed to dial a cellphone while driving — a dishonest defense available to anyone caught texting.”

“We’ve made law enforcement’s job harder,” state Attorney General Josh Shapiro told KDKA in 2017. “They don’t know if you’re texting or dialing so people have a chance to make an excuse.”

So a stronger law is clearly needed. House Bill 37 would expand the 2012 law, additionally banning drivers from using hand-held devices for any phone calls, other than to 911. The proposal passed the House, 120-74, last week. All but two members of Lancaster County’s delegation — Republican Brett Miller and Democrat Mike Sturla — voted in favor of the bill.

We like that the incredibly unsafe practices of phoning or texting while driving would draw a more severe financial penalty under this proposal. Public awareness of such consequences can serve as its own form of prevention.

Under the proposal, however, that larger financial penalty could only be applied as a secondary offense, paired with another violation. Police officers would no longer be able to pull over drivers they think are using hand-held phones. That amendment was added in the House, the AP reported, because some lawmakers were concerned that “black drivers could be exposed to racial profiling stops.”

“As an African American male who crisscrosses this commonwealth, I am nervous at times when I’m driving in Pennsylvania,” Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said.

That’s a perspective that deserves consideration. Also, given that pulling over drivers for texting has been shown to be ineffective as a deterrent here, we believe it makes sense to put the focus on stiffer penalties, rather than traffic stops. We urge the state Senate to retain that language as it considers, and hopefully passes, the legislation.

There are other ways to keep Pennsylvania’s forward momentum for safer driving, and HB 37 recognizes that. It mandates that teens get specific driver’s education training about the ban on drivers using hand-held devices, the AP reported.

That’s good. The best form of prevention is instilling good habits when drivers are just starting out.

So, please, avoid using hand-held devices while driving. With the hands-free technology now commonly available, there’s less need than ever for such unsafe actions.

Commonsense and fair state law is an important aspect of road safety. But ultimately we have the most important part to play.