Does New Pa. Law Prohibiting Texting While Driving Go Far Enough?

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Pennsylvania’s new law banning texting behind the wheel took effect today, but critics contend that a loophole undermines the goal of eliminating distracted driving. 

While nine states and the District of Columbia by law prohibit any cell phone use while driving a school bus, Pennsylvania and 30 other states ban all motorists including school bus drivers from texting while driving. Gov. Tom Corbett signed Senate Bill 314 into law Nov. 9. Now, anyone convicted of texting while driving under the new ban will face a fine of $50 for each infraction.

The new law prohibits any drivers from using an interactive wireless communication device (IWCD) to send, read or write a text-based communication while his or her vehicle is in motion. It defines a text-based communication as a text message, instant message, e-mail or other written communication composed or received on an IWCD.

Meanwhile, individual school districts may prohibit school bus drivers from talking on cell phones while behind the wheel. The Pennsylvania School Bus Driver Manual published by the state Department of Transportation only mentions that bus drivers have cell phones or other comunication devices on the bus to use in emergencies.

“Distracted drivers are a significant risk on our streets and highways,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa. “The new law bans texting, as well as the sending of instant messages and e-mail, while driving in Pennsylvania.”

Yet what complicates the law is that it does not prohibit using cell phones to dial numbers or make and receive phone calls while driving.

“The safest decision would be to eliminate the use of a phone in the car, period,” Scranton Police Chief Dan Duffy told The Times-Tribune. “We’re not going to let the flaw in the law interfere with us conducting our business on the enforcement end of it.”

Police now have the authority to pull over and cite any driver that has his or her finger on a phone or device, as the new texting while driving law is considered a primary offense.

A study by Virginia Tech Driving Institute revealed that people who text while driving are 23 times more likely to have an accident in their vehicle. In 2010, there were 13,846 crashes in Pennsylvania where distracted driving played a role, according to drive safe PA, and 1,093 crashes statewide in which at least one driver used a handheld phone, with 11 fatalities.

This past December the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that all 50 states and the District of Columbia outlaw the use of all forms of wireless communication while driving. This guidance was reiterated when NTSB released its final report from its investigation of a 2010 four-vehicle pile-up in Missouri that involved two school buses. A 16-year-old high school band member riding in one of the buses was killed.

The NTSB is holding a forum March 27, titled “Attentive Driving: Countermeasures for Distraction,” in Washington, D.C. The public is invited to attend the forum in the NTSB Board Room and Conference Center or view the webcast at www.ntsb.gov.