Data shows cellphones, cars don’t mix

State police Sgt. Jeffrey Tylman is correct on two counts.

Motorists who operate a vehicle and cellphone at the same time are near ubiquitous and that situation is both ridiculous and scary, as Tylman told Erie Times-News reporter Tim Hahn.

On just about any drive, one can see the car that weaves out of its lane or slows inexplicably or sits too long at a green light or cruises through a red.

Odds are, a glimpse of the front seat shows the cause: eyes on a cellphone screen and not the road. Now data shows us the price of that irresponsible and unnecessary behavior in Erie County. Distracted driving crashes more than tripled between 1998 and 2017, jumping from 101 to a 20-year high of 350. That is unacceptable.

There was much to celebrate in Hahn’s report about 20 years’ worth of crash data. It detailed promising 20-year lows in the number of crashes involving unrestrained drivers, that is, those not strapped in with a seat belt.

The same was true of an array of crashes involving alcohol.

The improved statistics were not a fluke, but evidence of years of hard work and smart policy paying off. Tylman, the Troop E Erie station commander, credited campaigns like Click It or Ticket for raising awareness and boosting seat belt compliance.

And certainly, aggressive drunken-driving enforcement, the efforts of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and stiffer drunken-driving penalties enacted over time by the state Legislature have turned what used to be an overlooked and tolerated deadly behavior nearly taboo.

Something similar needs to happen for those driving while distracted by their cellphones. Millcreek Township Police Sgt. Anthony Chimera noted how difficult it is for law enforcement to discern whether a person is texting or emailing while driving — which is illegal and punishable by a $50 fine — or talking on a phone, which is permissible in Millcreek.

Still, it was encouraging to hear that a distracted-driving enforcement detail in April resulted in 12 citations for texting or cellphone use while driving. Keep writing those tickets when possible.

It is also on the community to police itself. People might continue to text and drive because they believe they can safely operate a vehicle and a phone simultaneously. The math shows this is not true.

It should not take more galling statistics or tales of tragedy caused by distracted driving to capture our attention on this issue. Driving without a cellphone is possible because up until a few years ago that is all anyone did. Whatever is happening in that handheld device, it can wait.