The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Thursday launched a statewide safety-awareness campaign aimed at reducing the incidents of texting-related crashes on the state's toll highways. Officials unveiled new "quit-texting" signs that are now being put up at toll plazas, rest stops and on roadside message boards across the Turnpike system.
"Today, we're celebrating our 70th birthday by declaring America's First Super Highway the 'Text-Free Turnpike,'" said Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier. "We're sending a strong message to travelers: Quit texting on the Turnpike, and keep your thumbs on the wheel."
When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened on Oct. 1, 1940, drivers were likely to be solely focused on driving. But today, motorists are tempted by a variety of distractions besides the vehicle controls and gauges: GPS devices, MP3 players, phones and other portable devices.
"Without doubt, drivers today have far too many diversions taking our attention away from what we should be doing behind the wheel," Brimmeier said. "An unfortunate consequence of these technological advances is an increase in accidents involving multitasking motorists."
Statistics show that, in 2009, more than 120 Pennsylvania Turnpike accidents were attributed to driver distraction. In the first half of this year, 93 distracted-driving accidents have already occurred on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
"While these figures are not specific to texting alone, they indicate a troubling trend, and we felt it was time to act," Brimmeier said. "Our purpose isn't about issuing traffic citations, it's about improving the safety of Turnpike travelers; it's about common sense and public education."
Pennsylvania State Police Troop T, the unit in charge of Turnpike patrols, is joining the Turnpike in encouraging texting-free driving. State troopers have seen first hand how cell-phone usage while driving - and particularly texting - can lead to tragic consequences that could be prevented if drivers put down their phones.
"Troop T is concerned with the safety and security of all people who drive or work on the Turnpike, and it's a job we take very seriously," said Captain Martin L. Henry III, commanding officer of Troop T. "When you text, you not only endanger your own safety, you endanger the lives of everyone else on the road - people who might become innocent victims of careless behavior."
Today, the Turnpike is hosting regional kickoff events near Philadelphia and Harrisburg to officially unveil their quit-texting signs in partnership with Pennsylvania State Police, regional AAA auto clubs, and the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association - three groups that have endorsed the commission's efforts on this important issue.
In addition, the Turnpike Commission recently approved a new policy forbidding employees to text or e-mail while driving on official business - whether in a commission-owned vehicle or a private vehicle. The policy, passed by the five-member commission on Sept. 21, is expected to take effect Oct. 7.
"Before we started to reach out to customers, we felt it was important to set an example by prohibiting our 2,000 employees from texting or e-mailing behind the wheel," Brimmeier said. "We're telling employees they're not permitted to text or type while driving for work purposes, and hopefully that behavior will carryover in their personal time, too."
Pennsylvania lawmakers are presently considering several bills on the use of handheld devices while driving. To date, texting bans have been enacted in 32 states, including Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York. Bans on all handheld devices have been enacted in eight states, including Delaware, New Jersey and New York.