Pa. Lawmakers Should Get Serious About Texting While Driving

Under current state law, texting and driving is nothing more than a summary offense. A bill headed to the Senate would make vehicular homicide while texting a felony.

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Let us now mourn the turn signal.

I couldn’t assign an exact date to its demise, but there’s no question it’s dead. Drive on I-95 or the Atlantic City Expressway or 422, as I do every day, and you’ll see maybe one or two in 20 drivers still bothering to alert those around them to their intentions before they change lanes or pass someone or move toward an exit. And it’s not just on highways; drivers in my rinky-dink hometown are just as cavalier, jolting to a stop to parallel-park with no notice whatsoever, making lefts at four-way stop signs without warning, maneuvering through Walmart and Giant and Best Buy parking lots like they’re alone on the road.

I scream at them from behind my steering wheel: “Do you think I can read your mind, you *&$%^# moron?!?” I used to figure they did—that somehow the rise of technology and the fact that you can now carry all your friends in your pocket and have two dozen of them instantaneously like the photo you post of your avocado toast have tricked us all into believing that those around us know all about our lives and thus have no problem anticipating that we’re for sure going to brake for that yard sale.

But my observations of other clues—the cold blue glow illuminating drivers’ faces at night, the characteristic back-and-forth weave in the lane, the downward tilt of their eyes, which really should be on the road—reveals the even more alarming reality that they’re on their goddamn phones, sending texts or checking email or Facebook or Instagram while they drive. The reason they don’t use their turn signals is that they can’t. They only have two hands. One is on the steering wheel (if I’m lucky) and the other is holding the phone.

Can I be frank? I don’t care if you kill yourself by plowing into the median barrier. I mean, it would be sad for your loved ones, I suppose. And any man’s death diminishes me, yada yada yada, at least on a metaphysical level, though the death of someone stupid enough to be typing a text while doing 75 miles per hour on the Schuylkill Expressway seems downright Darwinian. But it’s not the prospect of your demise that makes me curse you. It’s the chance that you might take me with you as you scroll through those insanely witty tweets sent by your—hey! Hey, get the hell back in your own lane!

All of which is why I was so delighted when the state House of Representatives this week unanimously passed H.B. 853, otherwise known as Daniel’s Bill. Daniel was Daniel Gallatin, a 68-year-old grandfather and volunteer firefighter who was riding his motorcycle in New Castle, in the far western part of the state, back in 2013 when he was struck and killed by a woman who was texting while driving her SUV. The woman, Laura Gargiulo, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and texting while driving. Her punishment? A $50 fine and a month in jail.

Under current state law, texting while driving is nothing more than a summary offense. You don’t even get points on your license for it. Yet last year, there were 66 deaths in this state caused by distracted driving. Nationally, more than 3,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries were traced to the same cause in 2014. People who would never dream of knocking back four or five beers and getting behind the wheel think nothing of texting while they drive, but studies show texting while driving is as lethal as drunk-driving. Just because everybody seems to be doing it doesn’t make it right.

And in a recent civil court decision in a suit filed by Daniel Gallatin’s estate, a Lawrence County judge ruled that the two men who sent Laura Gargiulo the texts she was reading when she killed Gallatin may be liable for negligence and wrongful death claims if they knew she was driving at the time. That puts some teeth into “Friends don’t let friends text and drive,” doesn’t it?

H.B. 853 would increase the penalties for vehicular homicide while texting and aggravated assault by vehicle while texting, making the offenses second-degree felonies and putting them on a par with causing death or injury while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Let’s hope the Senate quickly votes to see the measure passed. Daniel Gallatin’s family thought his life was worth more than $50. I’d like to think mine is. Hell, I even think yours is. And if the phones go away, the turn signal might even come back.

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