Safety bills await OK from Corbett |

Safety bills await OK from Corbett

Michelle Fiola admits she sends text messages sometimes while driving.

But she promised to stop if it becomes illegal in Pennsylvania, which on Tuesday moved just one step away from joining the majority of states that ban the activity.

“I know people who have been in accidents because of it,” Fiola, 29, of McDonald said as she gassed up her Jaguar at the GetGo in Robinson.

All that is missing from making texting-while-driving illegal in the state is the signature of Gov. Tom Corbett, who pressed lawmakers to approve such a law.

The state Senate voted 45-5 to approve changes to legislation that the House passed 188 to 7. The law would make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning police could stop a driver they see texting and issue a ticket punishable by a $50 fine. With Corbett’s signature, the law would go into effect in March.

“People should get fined heavily for it,” said Josh Van Auker, 25, of the South Side, who said he stopped texting while driving after people he knows crashed while doing so. “It really is stupid. The bottom line is it’s dangerous because you’re not paying attention.”

Opponents consider a texting ban an infringement on personal liberty. But supporters, including state police, the insurance industry and highway safety officials, say the law is necessary to save lives.

Last year, PennDOT recorded 13,790 crashes involving distracted drivers, which resulted in 66 deaths, said agency spokeswoman Erin Waters. Cell-phone use accounted for 1,093 crashes and 11 traffic fatalities, she said. Agency data do not distinguish between texting or talking on a cell phone.

“We think it’s underreported because it relies on drivers saying they were using a phone or an officer noticing it and making a point to report it,” Waters said.

Much like getting motorists to wear seat belts and to not drink and drive, getting the public to stop texting while driving will take time, education and enforcement, said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington, D.C.

“There is no question that it is distracting,” Adkins said.

Pennsylvania would become the 35th state to ban texting for all drivers, according to the GHSA.

“Pennsylvania has been very challenging. It’s been a tough state,” said Adkins, who noted that the state still does not have a primary law to enforce seat-belt use.

Nationally, 95 percent of respondents said they viewed texting or e-mailing by other drivers as a serious safety threat, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s annual Traffic Safety Culture Index, which was released last month. One-third of those respondents also admitted to texting while driving.

“It shouldn’t take a lot of data to convince us that texting and driving is not a good idea,” said AAA East Central spokesman Brian Newbacher. “But study after study shows us this is easily the most dangerous activity people do while driving.”

A study released last year showed that road crashes increased slightly in states where texting bans had been adopted.

“The laws are well meaning, and texting while driving is obviously dangerous, but there is no evidence that texting bans enacted in other states have reduced crashes,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Washington, D.C., group that conducted the research.

Newbacher anticipated those results will change if the issue is revisited in the next three to five years.

“One wouldn’t expect to find results immediately,” he said.

“We’re hoping this new law will at least give someone the ability to think twice about picking up that phone,” state police spokeswoman Trooper Robin Mungo said. “Most people do abide by the law. We hope that continues. We think this is a great thing.”

Drivers from around the region said they would support a texting ban, even if they doubted it would eliminate the practice.

“It’s not going to stop it, but maybe it would crack down on 50 percent,” said Ashley Blumling, 28, of Moon. “At least you hope it will.”

For Alex Ventura, the law could go even further.

“I am against texting,” said Ventura, 66, of South Fayette. “To me, it’s equal to being drunk.”

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