Ban handheld devices while driving in Pa.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial (TNS)

Pennsylvania is the only state among its neighbors to permit the use of handheld wireless electronic devices while driving. It’s time for the commonwealth to ban this risky habit, too.

Sen. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, has again introduced legislation to bring Pennsylvania in line with 25 other states — and safety recommendations — by banning driving “while holding or supporting any electronic wireless device.” The Senate Transportation Committee passed the bill, 13-1, setting up a bipartisan push to make the state’s roads safer.

The Pennsylvania Senate is considering a ban on driving “while holding or supporting any electronic wireless device.”

Distracted driving kills and maims. Fourteen percent of fatal car crashes involve cell phone usage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 3,500 people died needlessly in distracted driving incidents in 2021, up more than 20% from 2,800 in 2018. Cell phones are implicated in a smaller number of distracted driving accidents, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety notes that data are collected from police reports, which almost certainly undercount the number of distracted-driving incidents.

Numerous studies have shown drivers perform poorly when distracted by their devices — and not just by texting. Programming smartphone navigation systems, in fact, is associated with more dangerous incidents than regular texting. Research on the dangers of speaking on a handheld phone is mixed, but it certainly diverts attention that should focus on the road.

The IIHS reports that full cellphone bans — like the one the Pennsylvania Senate is considering — have been shown to reduce accidents, with Oregon and Washington recording a roughly 10% drop in rear-end collisions after adopting full bans in 2017. Interestingly, California did not achieve the same result, perhaps because its 2017 cellphone law could be read to allow usage during temporary stoppages, such as in famous California traffic.

But even if the effects of the ban aren’t all one would hope, the law is a teacher; it is good to ban an activity that endangers others merely for the convenience of the driver.

One argument against expanding Pennsylvania’s current texting-and-driving law is providing police with another excuse for so-called pretextual traffic stops, where officers pull over a motorist they suspect of some other crime for a minor offense. Because the law would make handheld electronic device use a primary offense, it would not be covered by local restrictions in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on police performing stops for secondary offenses, like broken tail lights.

That argument, however, could be used against any traffic safety regulation. The problem is with pretextual stops, not with safety laws that might possibly be abused.

The state Senate should quickly take up Ms. Brown’s bill and pass it into law. It’s time for Pennsylvania drivers to form new and safer habits while on the road, so that fewer people are needlessly hurt or killed due to distracted driving.

— From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS).