Driver's Seat: Mixed feelings on Pa.'s driver texting ban

Posted: November 09, 2011

You'd think an auto columnist who recently almost was run over by a texting driver would be wholeheartedly in favor of Pennsylvania's recent ban on texting while driving.

You'd be wrong. As Gov. Corbett gets ready to sign the bill Wednesday, I've warmed to the idea a bit, but only as a first step.

First, the backstory: So I'm out for jog a couple of weeks ago in the hinterburbs of Chester County, where sidewalks are merely something leading from your driveway to your front door.

I keep alert for cars. I take note that an oncoming driver sees me and that no one else is behind me. We give each other a little room and all is well. It's worked for two years.

Except two weeks ago, when a Toyota Prius coming into my neighborhood seemed to be coming toward me instead of veering away.

We avoided colliding, so Mrs. Passenger Seat was not made into The Widow Passenger Seat, left alone to update Sturgis Kid Versions 1.0 through 4.0. I saw the driver clearly paying full attention to his phone the entire time. He never even saw me.

He pulled into his driveway nearby, and I considered giving him hell, but I decided to jog off some steam first.

What gives? Pennsylvania's new texting ban has me a little steamed as well. Not only is it incomplete - drivers can still make calls, and police wonder how they'll enforce it, according to a story last week by colleagues Bonnie L. Cook, Kathleen Brady Shea, and Paul Nussbaum - but even well-conceived bans don't seem to work.

I recall the 2010 Highway Loss Data Institute study that followed crash rates in four states with texting bans.

The rates rose slightly after the bans were put into place.

Russ Rader, vice president for communications at the institute's sister organization, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), said the studies show that laws might not be the answer.

"There's no question that texting while driving is dangerous," Rader said. "Unfortunately, there's no evidence that laws restricting various kinds of cellphone use have had any effect on reducing crashes."

Rader said drivers may be aware of the new laws, and they begin to text below window level to avoid detection. Their eyes move farther away from the road, and bam!

Barbara Harsha, director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, countered that her group still supports texting bans, and that more research remains to be done.

"It's really too early, I think, to make a judgment about texting bans," Harsha said.

She pointed to an ongoing effort in California, where a ban on handheld cellphone use and texting has been aggressively enforced, and the numbers are starting to go down.

A good first step: Harsha likened the legislation on texting while driving to the first steps of tougher DUI laws. It's time to ramp up campaigns against the problem.

I can go along with that.

Rader brought up a good point, though, that fits nicely into something I've wondered. The IIHS did a study in 2005, when cellphones were becoming more popular, and found there was never any real spike in crashes because of cellphones.

So it seems we drive among a certain percentage of nimrods who lack focus. And now they have their cellphones. And sometimes the smartphone is the smartest thing behind the wheel.

If legislators are serious about reducing crashes, the barrier to admission into the driving club would be raised. Drivers of all ages should be required to take a safety course like I wrote about recently, the Tire Rack Street Survival school.

Better living through technology. And Rader and I agree that technology likely will help take care of the problem that technology has exacerbated, if not caused.

"Automakers are quickly introducing crash-avoidance features, some of which are aimed at bringing drivers' attention back to the roads at critical times," Rader said.

In addition to hands-free calling and dialing, Ford and BMW now have systems that read text messages to drivers and can respond with a choice of short phrases.

And General Motors' OnStar is beta-testing a system to allow drivers to speak more detailed text-messaging responses.

All's well: As for my own DWT encounter, my neighbor was outside as I came back. I introduced myself, and we chatted a bit.

I told him about our earlier encounter, and he confirmed he had never seen me. I asked him to be careful in the future, and then changed the subject. I wanted to keep things pleasant, but we both realized that day could have had a very different outcome.

But while I feel better that I had a calm, non-preachy talk with my neighbor, I don't get that same feeling from the new texting ban.

Let's make that the first step, Harrisburg, not the end of the race.


Contact staff writer Scott Sturgis at ssturgis@phillynews.com or 215-854-2558.

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