Citations for texting while driving have spiked since the law’s implementation, though local police said citations are not much of a deterrent for one of the highest causes of crashes.
“I think phones are so prevalent now that I don’t know if people even comprehend they’re breaking a law,” said Connellsville Police Department Cpl. Bryan Kendi. “If you’re on your phone, and you’re driving, you’re not even aware of the consequences that could happen.”
Statewide, 69 people died in distracted-driving crashes in 2016, with 16,050 total distracted-driving crashes, according to a press release from state Rep. Justin Walsh, R-Rostraver Township. Nationally, 10 people are killed in distracted-driving crashes every day, with 37,000 deaths in 2016, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted driving is the third-highest cause of fatal crashes, after speeding and driving under the influence, the data sad.
Citations for texting while driving and other distracted driving citations increased by 52 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to data from PA Courts InfoShare.
The data includes citations related to all types of illegal cellphone use while driving. Citations increased by 209 percent in Fayette County, 88 percent in Washington County, 83 percent in Greene County and 45 percent in Westmoreland County.
Police said laws require strengthening to decrease the prevalence of texting while driving and other types of distracted driving.
“It’s a start,” said state police Trooper Robert Broadwater, the public information officer in Belle Vernon and Uniontown.
Police emphasized other types of distractions while driving, such as changing radio stations, singing along to a song, or simply thinking about something other than driving are often factors in crashes.
Earlier this month, the state House Transportation Committee held a hearing to discuss two bills proposed to strengthen distracted driving laws, according to Walsh. House Bill 1684 would prohibit talking on the phone while driving, except when using a hands-free accessory. It would further prohibit anyone under 18 from using a cellphone, even with a hands-free device.
“Personally, I would be fully supportive of that, because if you take things out of people’s hands, keep their hands on the steering wheel and their eyes up, you’re going to have a lot fewer crashes,” Kendi said, adding this is especially true for teen drivers.
Additionally, he said the bill would make it easier for police to enforce texting while driving laws. He said it is difficult to prove a person was texting while driving without the driver admitting to it, or police searching the driver’s phone.
House Bill 892 would create an additional summary offense for distracted driving, if the driver is also found to be driving carelessly. The distracted driving fine would be $50.
“If you’re going to start reaching into your pocket, maybe you’ll reconsider,” Broadwater said.
Pennsylvania State Police, along with troopers in West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana participated in a 6-State Trooper Project this month to increase enforcement and raise awareness about reckless and careless driving related to cellphone use. A press release on the initiative, Put Your Phone Away or Get Ready to Pay, suggested drivers ask a passenger to be “designated texter,” or pull over to a safe location before texting.
“Drivers beware: If you text we will be there and you will receive a ticket. Texting and driving not only endangers you, it endangers everyone around you!” the release said. “You could pay with a ticket, or you could pay with your life. Texting and driving always has a cost.”
Minimum fines are $50 to $100, with a total citation cost of more than $150. Penalties could be as severe as jail time, the release said.
“One ‘LOL’ or ‘SMH’ could change your life. You could end up in jail, injured or dead,” the release said.
AAA is also launching a program to decrease texting while driving, comparing distracted driving to driving under the influence in its initiative “Don’t Drive Intoxicated – Don’t Drive Intexticated.”
Data from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety indicates 97 percent of drivers say texting or emailing while driving is a serious or very serious threat to their safety, yet 45 percent admit to reading a text or email in the past month and 35 percent admit to writing one.
“AAA’s sobering new message makes it clear that the consequences of both alcohol-impaired driving and texting while driving are the same – deaths and injuries,” the release said.