Add bite to distracted violators

One possibility for curbing distracted driving in Pennsylvania might be to make the violation a primary offense.

Currently, it’s a secondary offense triggered by a separate primary one.

Distracted driving is a current topic in the state Legislature, which is considering two bills aimed at attacking the dangerous practice. They are:

n House Bill 1684, sponsored by Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, which would authorize a statewide ban on motorists using hand-held mobile telephones while a vehicle is in motion.

n House Bill 892, sponsored by Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, which would create an additional summary offense of distracted driving in cases where a driver is found to be driving carelessly.

On the surface, both proposed measures make sense, although both bills will be subjected to further discussion before there’s final judgment on them.

Testimony provided during a House Transportation Committee hearing on April 2 has provided a strong foundation for that ongoing consideration.

Beyond the immediate question of the bills’ fate, there’s the additional matter of how to ensure effective enforcement, if the legislation is enacted. The new level or levels of enforcement stemming from the measures would challenge law enforcement’s ability to handle the full scope of potential cases.

Statistics from 2017 back to 2013 are indicative of the task that law enforcement would encounter.

According to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, there was a 52 percent increase last year in citations issued for distracted driving.

The Pennsylvania Courts report lists 5,054 citations issued statewide last year compared with 3,336 in 2016; 3,099 citations in 2015; 2,195 in 2014; and 1,858 in 2013.

As use of cellphones and other electronic devices continues to increase — even among people who were reluctant to use them while driving in the past — the potential for a greater number of distracted driving accidents also will grow.

Meanwhile, it’s reasonable to deduce that, despite the growing numbers, distracted driving accidents still remain significantly underreported due to the difficulties police encounter in ascertaining evidence of that dangerous practice, as well as witnesses to corroborate what authorities might suspect.

Unlike neighboring Maryland, which bans drivers from using all hand-held communication devices, as well as texting, Pennsylvania simply prohibits operators of passenger vehicles from texting.

But under a law passed in 2014, Pennsylvania now bans drivers of commercial vehicles from hand-held-phone-device use, not just texting.

Thus, in Pennsylvania, it’s common to see drivers of passenger vehicles talking on their cellphones, while the expressions on many of their faces indicate that their full attention isn’t on the road ahead.

On April 3, the online news and information service Capitolwire quoted Maj. Edward Hoke, director of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Patrol, as endorsing both House bills as a means for giving law enforcement more tools.

Meanwhile, Samuel Marshall, of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, urged lawmakers to make distracted driving a primary offense, and he made a good point in written testimony that he submitted to the House committee.

“This isn’t like seat belts or motorcycle helmets, where the risk of unsafe behavior falls on the person in violation of the law,” he said. “Here, the risk is as much or more on other motorists, passengers and pedestrians.”

The issue of distracted driving should be kept front and center by lawmakers until final decisions on the measures in question are forthcoming.