The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
March 9, 2012
The law forbidding texting while driving went into effect yesterday. The
texting-ban is now a primary offense—meaning police can pull people over for
texting alone, absent any other driving offense.
It includes a $50 fine for a text-based communication, including sending or
reading emails. It also forbids surfing the Web. A vehicle must be in motion for the driver to be fined, and
talking on the phone while driving is still legal in Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania in 2010, there were 1,324 traffic fatalities. According to
the 2010 Pennsylvania Crash Facts & Statistics compiled by the Department of
Transportation, 52 deaths were attributed to distracted driving and only a portion of those related to cell phone use. For
instance, in 2008 there were 53 deaths attributed to distracted driving, only
six of those deaths, about 11 percent, were the result of cell phone use.
The State Police have said troopers will pull over motorists who might be
driving slower than surrounding traffic or bobbing and weaving. The challenge
for troopers enforcing a text-messaging ban will be discerning from a distance
what drivers are actually doing with their phones. “Are we going to be able to
prove beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody was texting? Probably not,”
Allentown police Capt. Daryl Hendricks said. That is problematic. Beyond a
reasonable doubt is precisely the burden of proof required to get a conviction
for texting while driving.
Rob Dietz of TxtResponsibly.org, a nonprofit group in Maine, noted that if
texting is off-limits but handheld devices are not, a driver may not be texting,
but may doing any number of things with a handheld device which
are perfectly legal.
Beside the legal use of handheld devices for things other than texting, there
are many other causes of distracted driving. The U.S. Department of
Transportation has a web site www.distraction.gov. The site lists causes of
distracted driving, in addition to cell phone use and texting. Included on the
list are eating and drinking, putting on makeup, talking to passengers, reading,
using navigation systems, changing the radio stations, CDs, mp3s and iPods. Where is the call for a Big Mac ban or a Maybelline ban?
Texting is only the most recent and trendy cause of distracted driving. This
is not to suggest that texting is not a serious problem. A University of Utah study found that cell phone use slows
reaction time to about the same as someone driving with a .08 blood-alcohol
limit or legally drunk.
So why all the attention to texting while driving? Ninety percent of
Americans think texting while driving should be outlawed, compared with just
eight percent who think it’s alright. Polling numbers like that always get the
attention of legislators. Maybe that explains why 36 states have enacted some sort of
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