The ban on Pennsylvania drivers’ texting behind the wheel that went into effect earlier this month could prove to be little more than a feel-good law that falls far short of what’s actually needed to keep motorists safe on the state’s highways.
Because the rule wasn’t twinned with a ban on drivers’ overall use of handheld phones — as it is in New Jersey — the Pennsylvania texting ban will be tough to enforce. How will traffic officers know whether a driver is only punching in a phone number or messaging someone?
“With texting,” says city Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, “it is going to be difficult to enforce, because it’s OK under the new law to dial a number.” There’s no question that state lawmakers set the right safety standard by banning texting, which can be far more dangerous than carrying on a phone conversation, if drivers take their eyes off the road.
To the extent that motorists heed the principle that texting on the highway can be deadly, the roads will be safer. But legislators and Gov. Corbett missed a chance to enact broader legislation that would ban texting more effectively, while at the same time discouraging all other cellphone use by drivers.
The better course for Pennsylvania would have been to emulate New Jersey’s ban on texting and holding a phone. The handheld ban doesn’t stop drivers from making calls — a distracting practice that safety experts say can be the equivalent of driving drunk. But it does discourage phone use. And for police, a handheld ban simplifies enforcement of either rule, inasmuch as any driver seen holding a phone can be cited.
Not only does the Pennsylvania texting ban fall short, but it also supersedes smarter local rules. That means Philadelphia’s ban on handheld-phone use by drivers has been taken off the books, despite an impressive three-year track record during which 31,000 drivers were ticketed.
State lawmakers in Harrisburg don’t need to wait to strengthen the rules. Even if the texting ban proves to dissuade drivers from sending messages, motorists would be even safer if Harrisburg were to add a ban on the use of handheld phones, for texting or talking.
From a safety perspective, the best regulatory approach would be to ban all use of phones and digital gadgets by drivers, as is done in parts of Europe. With so many American motorists still resistant to that notion, though, the best hope is that state laws on texting and handheld-device use are as tough as possible on distracted drivers.