A Civic Project story
By Joseph Stango
INDIANA -- Benjamin J. Ferra understands the dangers of texting while driving. But he does it anyway.
"I almost wrecked before, but I still do it," said Ferra, 29, a 2009 hospitality-management graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, during a May 3 interview at an Oakland Avenue pizzeria opposite the campus.
He said he texts out of necessity.
"Most people don't answer their phones and will only respond to texts," he said.
Texting while driving? It's just something people do these days.
"It's just become so normal," he said. "It's automatic."
However, the dangers -- to his physical safety and to his job security -- are not lost on Ferra. He does not text while driving on work-related trips for his Indiana, Pa., employer, which has a company policy against texting while driving, he said.
And when he's not on the job, he said he gets irritated when he sees other people texting behind the wheel of a car.
"I guess it's something that you think is harmless," Ferra said. "But it really is dangerous."
According to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, distracted driving is "an epidemic on America's roadways."
A federal Department of Transportation website defines distraction as "any activity that could divert a person's attention away from the primary task of driving."
Because "text messaging requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver," it is "by far the most alarming distraction," according to the DOT.
The toll, according to DOT: 3,092 people killed in 2010, the most recent year for which agency data are available, and an estimated 416,000 injured in crashes involving distracted drivers.
The younger the driver, the greater the risk, according to a 2011 survey published in Consumer Reports magazine. Nearly two-thirds of respondents under 30 years old reported using a mobile phone while driving within the previous 30 days, and nearly one-third texted behind the wheel, the magazine reported.
Among respondents age 30 and older, the numbers were lower -- 41 percent reported using a mobile phone behind the wheel, and 9 percent texted.
For all drivers, a 2009 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found that just dialing a mobile phone increased the risk of a crash by six times the rate for non-distracted drivers. And a study of commercial truck drivers showed that texting increased the risk of a crash by 23 times.
State governments are getting the message. On March 8, a state law that bans texting while driving went into effect in Pennsylvania.
Act 98 classifies the practice as a primary offense, which means police can pull over motorists for that reason only. Violators can be fined $50. No points are added to a violator's driving record.
The local delegation to the state legislature is divided on the issue. State Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, voted in favor of the bill. State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, voted against it.
"No conversation is worth putting lives at risk," Reed wrote in an April 11 email. "Most of us have seen or heard about accidents that can be attributed to distracted driving. Creating a law in Pennsylvania that made texting while driving illegal was a necessary step to ensuring the safety of our citizens."
White said the law is unnecessary: Motorists should know better than to drive while distracted.
"Anyone who has driven on Route 422, or even Philadelphia Street on a busy evening, should know better than to allow anything to distract their attention away from what is happening on the road," he wrote in an April 20 email. "Waiting to answer a text only costs a few minutes. An accident can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention pain and suffering."
The senator added that the new law imposes unnecessary strain on police and suggested that it invites government intrusion into citizens' lives.
"As a practical matter, enforcing this law seems to be an inefficient and costly use of police time and resources," White said. "Finally, I don't know if the enactment of this law opened Pandora's Box when it comes to the consideration of more extensive, expensive and intrusive regulations on Pennsylvania's motorists."
The intrusion feared by Sen. White is not yet evident in Indiana County, home to the largest state-supported public university in the commonwealth, with an enrollment of more than 15,000 students, most of them in the under-30 age group most at risk.
According to a mid-April sampling of local police and judicial offices -- including Indiana borough police, the Homer City magistrate's office and Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus police -- no citations for texting while driving had been issued since the law went into effect on March 8.
One IUP criminology professor said the law's provisions lack deterrence.
The fine amounts to a "slap on the wrist," said criminology professor Willard T. Austin in an April 10 email. He added that the relatively small fine was understandable for a new law.
"Research has shown that a one-dollar penalty for parking is going to do nothing," he added. "When it gets to $25, people will run for their car."
Joseph Stango, a senior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Homer City.
Sidebar: For more info
For more information about this story, please contact the following sources:
State Rep. Dave Reed
128 Main Capitol Building
PO Box 202062
Harrisburg, Pa. 17120-2062
Phone: (717) 705-7173
Fax: (717) 705-1947
550 Philadelphia St.
Indiana, PA 15701
Phone: (724) 465-0220
Fax: (724) 465-0221
State Sen. Don White
286 Main Capitol
Harrisburg, Pa. 17120
618 Philadelphia St.
Indiana, Pa. 15701
Toll Free: 866-357-0151