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EDITORIAL: Fix weak texting law
Face it: When Pennsylvania lawmakers mandated seat-belt use in vehicles way back in 1987, they did so because they thought some of us were too dumb to look out for ourselves.
Anyone who unwisely chose not to use the safety device was only risking their own neck, after all.
If we accept government protecting us from our own recklessness — and no one has rioted over mandatory seat-belt use in the past 28 years — we should have been jumping for joy when lawmakers once again climbed in our cars in 2012.
That was when the Pennsylvania General Assembly finally joined the majority of other states that had banned a relatively new phenomenon — texting while driving.
Here was an incredibly dangerous practice that risked not just the life of the driver but the lives of everyone in his or her path (roughly, because such drivers tend to drift and swerve) while they looked down at their electronic device.
On average, a driver takes his or her eyes off the road for five seconds while texting, according to a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study. At 55 mph, that's enough time to travel the length of a football field.
Not surprisingly, a texting driver is 23 times more likely to crash than a non-texting driver, the study revealed.
Unfortunately, here in Pennsylvania we settled for a weak law that police say is nearly impossible to enforce.
Here's why: The law bans drivers from sending or receiving texts while their car is in motion, but it doesn't prevent them from using any of the other 101 functions a smart phones offers.
How is an officer supposed to prove a driver was texting and not, for example, checking the weather, looking up a restaurant address, or even just punching in a number to make a phone call?
It's not like police can seize a driver's phone and check. No, this law basically relies on the honor system, which might be why so few drivers in York County have been ticketed for the offense.
In the three years since it became illegal, local law enforcement has given out just more than 250 tickets for texting while driving.
If that seems low, you're right. And officers acknowledge as much.
"The expectation of law enforcement to be able to enforce for these types of violations the way these laws are written is absurd," Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel said. "We just do the best we can."
Bentzel's department is the largest in York County, serving about 70,000 people in a large swath to the north and west of York City. Northern Regional issued 91 tickets from the time the law took effect until the end of 2014. That averages to just 1.35 ticket per 1,000 residents in its jurisdiction.
The odd thing is texting while driving is a primary offense, meaning police can pull drivers over if they witness the violation. Pennsylvania's seat-belt law, on the other hand, is a secondary offense; a seat-belt ticket can only be issued if the driver has already been stopped for a primary offense.
So police can clearly see someone is not buckled up, but they can't pull the driver over. Yet officers have the authority to stop a driver just for texting — and sometimes don't bother because the law makes it impossible to prove.
There's a simple fix to the botched texting and driving law: Ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones. There would no reason for them to be fiddling with their smart phones, and no excuses when they get pulled over for it.
This isn't a new idea; 11 states, including all of our neighbors except Ohio, and the District of Columbia ban the use of hand-held cellphones altogether.
Pennsylvania lawmakers should do the same. And while they're at it they might as well fix the seat-belt law by making it a primary offense.
If legislation is worth doing, we think it's worth doing right.