Editorials from around Pennsylvania

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania's newspapers:

Black boxes in cars must be priority

Altoona Mirror

Oct. 16

Most Pennsylvania motorists, at least the owners or leasers of many newer models, probably are unaware that their personal vehicles might be equipped with a data-collection "black box."

Most people generally think of such devices only regarding large commercial aircraft. Whenever there's a plane crash or other major incident involving an airliner, investigators make locating or accessing the plane's "black boxes" — actually the bright-orange-in-color flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder — the first priority as they begin their probe.

Like not knowing about the possibility that a data-collection device might be riding along with them, most motorists probably don't know — or have forgotten — that the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in February rescinded an Obama-era proposal to mandate black boxes in all new vehicles.

That decision eight months ago can be judged as extremely questionable, considering the value of such devices in ascertaining an accident's cause as well as details about the time immediately preceding it.

The data device in a car captures such information as the speed of the vehicle during the time preceding the crash, whether a seat belt was being worn, seat track position and whether an airbag or airbags deployed as the result of an impact.

Despite the NHTSA decision earlier this year, the agency reportedly still maintains a list of required data that such devices must capture if an automaker has voluntarily installed them.

As for knowledge about the data recorders' existence in most newer-model vehicles, that fact is not emphasized enough — or often not at all — during the purchase process. There are so many other more popular features to talk up.

However, those event-data recorders should be given more attention. People who obey traffic laws and otherwise drive safely and defensively should feel an added sense of confidence and trust, knowing that there is a source of reliable information available, should they experience the misfortune of being involved in a serious crash, especially one for which they were not responsible.

News regarding vehicle black boxes is gaining traction in Pennsylvania, and it is emanating from Philadelphia, where a grant from the Philadelphia Police Foundation will soon allow that city's crash investigators to access data from inside vehicles' event-data recorders.

In a report last week, Philadelphia's WHYY News said the city's effort to gain black box data comes after years of advocacy from people like the co-founder of the group Families for Safer Streets Greater Philadelphia, who lost her daughter as the result of a crash in 2017. At the time of that tragic accident, the woman expressed shock and anger that the city's police department had to rely on another agency to investigate that crash and other serious crashes.

And, as WHYY reported, Philadelphia has a big fatal-traffic-accident problem. Last year there were 91 traffic fatalities, producing a traffic death rate more than double that of New York City's.

Information garnered from vehicle black boxes can be important for eliminating claims in court that speed estimates or other data produced manually by accident investigators might be incorrect or invalid.

Philadelphia stands to gain from the police foundation grant in the way many other places across the country have benefited from the same capability.

Meanwhile, while the Trump administration has opted to do away with numerous other Obama-era proposals and mandates, some rightly and some not-so-correctly, the administration should have discouraged February's NHTSA action.

Online: https://bit.ly/33zwFla


Robocalls are unwanted intrusion

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Oct. 13

The phone rings. You know who it is. No, wait. You know what it is.

It's not a friend asking you to lunch. It's not a neighbor asking to borrow your lawnmower. It's probably not even your pharmacy reminding you that your prescription is ready.

There is an ever-increasing likelihood that when your phone rings, it isn't someone you know. It isn't someone who knows you. It isn't someone at all.

It's a robocall — an autodialed communication that pulled your number from a database and connected you to either a recorded message or a simulation of a call that analyzes your words and responds with a preprogrammed set of answers.

Isn't technology wonderful?

Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Wolf signed changes to the Telemarketer Registration Act that will eliminate a requirement for telephone customers to renew participation in the Pennsylvania do-not-call registry every five years. It will also allow businesses to opt out of the list.

And that is great. It's just not enough.

Robocalls are the ultimate expression of the idea that just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.

No one wants to get a robocall — with the very rare exception of that notice from your pharmacy about a prescription, or a message from your kid's school about a snow day. But both of those instances are probably handled with text messages or emails, too.

No one really trusts a robocall. So many are electronic voices that don't just offer you a fabulous timeshare experience in Las Vegas. No, they're threatening you with an arrest warrant if you don't settle a mythical IRS debt by sending the PIN numbers for $2,000 in Target gift cards. (And why is it always Target gift cards?)

Robocalls are intrusive and intimidating. They can leave you feeling annoyed at best and alarmed at worst. They are a cheap but horribly inefficient form of advertising because they are intrinsically identified with sketchy scams.

So why can't we do more about them than just making a list of who shouldn't be called?

The state and the Federal Communications Commission should be requiring more of the effort be on the side of the callers than the recipient. They should be making it easy for customers to not just ask not to receive calls but to find a way to effectively block them.

Because we all get robocalls, and we all wish we didn't.

Online: https://bit.ly/2qigN8h


We're too cranky to handle zipper merging, which says something about us


Oct. 16

In 2015, LNP concisely laid out the overwhelming logic of the zipper merge and the raw human emotions that drive, no pun intended, its failure:

When motorists have to merge into one lane, they become two different kinds of drivers.

The early merger gets in the through lane and politely waits in line to get through the bottleneck.

The late merger cruises up the usually empty non-through lane and tries to merge at the last minute.

It is probably easy to guess who is driving the right way. Everyone knows what it is like to encounter a jerk. ...

But guess what? It actually takes both kinds of mergers to make traffic flow smoothly through bottlenecks, according to some experts."

Indeed, it takes two to make this thing go right.

We support the concept of zipper merging. But apparently, it's tougher in execution than in theory. Especially here.

But why?

Why is peaceful, idyllic Lancaster County, of all places in Pennsylvania, so bad — so averse! — regarding the notion of zipper merging?

Fred Owens, a retired psychology professor at Franklin & Marshall College, told Chad Umble that he's actually not surprised. He has "researched driving habits during his 40-year career (and) says different regions create their own deeply ingrained driving cultures that can be hard to change," Umble wrote.

That ingrained habit is this: We are accustomed to merging as soon as we can when a lane closes. That's what we learn as young drivers, and it's reinforced by experience.

That makes sense, but we think there are some other factors at play, too. More on those in a moment.

First, we want to share some of our readers' thoughts; on this issue, they're as plentiful as traffic cones. We haven't seen this many letters and comments since we raised the topic of legalized recreational marijuana.

— "Yes I know how to zipper merge, and I will continue to do so. No, I do not think most drivers know how to!"

— "There is nothing more infuriating than when someone thinks they get to decide when it's time to merge by sitting in the middle of the two lanes to block anyone from passing before the merge. Everyone should use both lanes and kindly merge, one by one, when it's time to move in to one lane."

— "I do not like the looks I am given by some drivers who have not learned the zipper merge method or who refuse to use it."

— "I zipper merged on (Route) 30 yesterday and got honked at, thrown the finger, and even had someone move halfway into the open travel lane ... just to block people from zipper merging. It was RIDICULOUS."

Most of the comments LNP received were from the pro-zipper merging camp, which we find heartening. But it still seems they are in the minority. And it makes sense that local drivers wouldn't write to spew venom at those who try to properly use both lanes. It would be a bad look to put it in writing, so perhaps they just stick to their nasty glares, horn-honking and other, even less civil, forms of communication.

And this gets at what we think might be the real crux of the problem: We're just too angry. Too busy. Too rushed. And too distracted.

Mix in that stress with heavy traffic, hot asphalt, and the signs and orange cones indicating a looming zipper merge and you have ... well, we'll let Fritzi Shreffler, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, describe it:

"I don't know what it is about our area, but we have a lot of people with a lot of road rage," she told Umble.

So what can we do about? How can we assuage the rage?

We can try to change our mentality when behind the wheel. This isn't a new idea that we're touting. Last December, we lamented how "many people drive too fast and too aggressively, making Lancaster County's (and Pennsylvania's) roads even more dangerous."

Zipper rage is just another manifestation of that mindset.

When out on the roads, we could all stand to slow down, chill out and remember that the courtesy and graciousness that define us as Lancaster County residents should apply when we're driving, too.

Consider what Leo Babauta wrote about changing one's driving mentality on the website Zen Habits: "I drive slower these days. While I used to be a bit of a driving maniac (ask my wife), passing everybody and stepping hard on my accelerator, I would also get increasingly frustrated when people would drive slow and keep me from driving fast, or cut me off. Driving was a stressful experience. Not anymore. These days, driving is a much more calm, serene experience, and I enjoy it much more."

We could all stand to take that to heart.

And if we do, others will notice. Those kids in the car — likely future drivers — will take their cues from our driving habits, attitudes and stress levels. We can set the example for the next generation.

If we can all work toward a county filled with calmer traffic, then who knows? Some day we might just be in the right frame of mind to fully embrace zipper merging. We'd reap the still-unrealized benefits that we've been missing out on for years. Studies show that when everyone uses the zipper merge, traffic flow improves dramatically. In Minnesota, it was found that a proper zipper merge can cut the length of a backup by about 40%.

Doesn't that sound so much nicer than what we experience now in this county, where we're apparently so cranky that PennDOT gave up on us?

Online: https://bit.ly/2VP4Get


More than racist Facebook posts, police vehicle stops are driving distrust

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Oct. 15

After the Plain View Project published a catalogue of racist Facebook comments made by more than 300 active duty Philadelphia police officers earlier this year, city officials -- to say nothing of citizens and civic leaders -- expressed concern over the impact of such posts on public trust in the police. The posts were abhorrent, and the city was right to terminate 15 officers and discipline many others -- but new data on police vehicle stops is a reminder that many people distrust police because of their own lived experience.

On Monday, The Inquirer's Samantha Melamed reported that in 2019 vehicle stops made by police in Philadelphia have skyrocketed -- averaging 10,000 more stops every month compared to last year. The number of white drivers who are stopped by police has remained relatively stable since 2014 but, over the same time period, the number of black and Latino drivers who were stopped more than doubled. In total, the police have stopped more than 250,000 drivers already this year. About 75% of all stops and 80% of all searches involve blacks and Latinos. The vast majority of the stops do not recover contraband. In fact, the rate at which officers find contraband has declined-- which makes the increase in stops even more troubling.

Unlike pedestrian stops that are monitored by the court as a part of a stop-and-frisk settlement from 2011, vehicle stops have remained under the radar.

Like pedestrians, black and Latino drivers who were stopped by police seemingly for no reason other than the color of their skin don't need to read offensive Facebook posts to distrust the police.

Interactions with police that civilians perceive as unfair breed distrust, as well as cynicism about the rule of law. A recent study by Amanda Geller, of New York University, and Jeffery Fagan, Columbia University, demonstrate that teens' interactions with police shape their relationship with the law. The teens who see these interactions as intrusive or unfair are less likely to respect law enforcement officers or to develop a sense that they should adhere to the law. Negative perceptions were diminished when teens had interactions they perceived as fair.

When combined, the more than a quarter million vehicle stops and the tens of thousands of pedestrian stops -- the vast majority of which are likely to end without recovery of contraband or arrest -- seem likely to accomplish more to brew cynicism and disrespect than prevent crime.

Former Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who resigned abruptly last summer due to his ties to a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit, had been seen as making some progress in narrowing racial disparities in pedestrian stop-and-frisk. This new data calls that legacy into question.

As this board has previously argued, the selection of a new police commissioner is an opportunity to reassess and rethink policing in Philadelphia --the goals of the police department, its culture, and the legitimacy of its tactics. But as critical as the police commissioner choice is, it will take more than one person to push for the fundamental change required to restore trust in law enforcement. As always, it starts at the top, with the Mayor.

Online: https://bit.ly/32kh0WE


Assure amends for sex abuse

The Citizens' Voice

Oct. 15

Justice is not just a result but a process, so it is no small thing to dramatically change the rules that regulate that process. Yet mounting evidence demonstrates that it is necessary to do so regarding old but more recently revealed evidence of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests and others.

The scope of the abuse has become clear through a cascade of public revelations over the last 20 years or so, beginning with the 2002 prosecution of the Rev. John J. Geoghan in Boston, subsequent detailed revelations by the Boston Globe, the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law and progressing through the blockbuster Pennsylvania statewide grand jury report in 2018.

Many of the Pennsylvania cases now are beyond the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution, and many of the survivors are older than the deadline in state law of 30 years old to file a civil lawsuit.

The state House passed a bill in April that would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution and give victims until age 55 to file for civil damages.

That bill has not moved in the Senate, which conducted a public hearing Oct. 2 on a different approach, a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations and create a two-year window for older victims to sue their alleged abusers or the institutions that shielded them.

The potential liability is enormous, and the impact would be all the more so because much of it for older cases probably would fall directly on the institutions rather than their insurers.

That's a serious concern but it is mitigated by evidence that shows, in many cases, that dioceses tried to use the statutory clock to evade liability.

As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker of Luzerne County put it: "There is no dispute how appalling the patterns of abuse are and have been, how responsible adults conspired to cover up wrongdoing or how organizations and institutions schemed to run the clock out on the ability of victims to secure some measure of justice."

That being the case, legislators have little choice but to ensure the ability of victims to seek redress, as several other state legislatures have done in recent years.

Online: https://bit.ly/2MLkxXA