Highway safety bills under review in Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, August 16, 2006

With a little less than three months remaining until the fall elections, state lawmakers in Pennsylvania could still discuss a handful of highway safety-related bills that can be considered up to the end of the regular session in late November.

One bill is aimed at truck drivers who travel the state during times when wintry precipitation is prevalent.

Sponsored by Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, the bill would fine drivers who fail to clear snow and ice off their vehicles.

Boscola said she introduced the bill last fall because she is tired of people who don’t clean off chunks of the wintertime precipitation before they head out on the road.

Her bill would permit police to pull over drivers whose vehicles are not cleared of snow and ice. Violators would face a fine of between $25 and $75.

Fines would increase to between $500 and $1,500 for large trucks if a build-up led to an injury or property damage.  For cars that caused damage or injury the fine would range from $200 to $1,000.

The provision would not apply to snow or ice that accumulated on a vehicle while it has been in motion.

The 2005 Christmas death of a woman driving on U.S. 209 in Nesquehoning, PA, brought attention to Boscola’s bill. Christine Lambert, 51, of Palmer Township, PA, was killed when ice fell off the roof of a tractor-trailer, the Pocono Record reported. The ice crashed through her vehicle’s window, killing her instantly. Lambert’s husband and son were hurt.

Another highway safety bill was introduced early this summer at the urging of Gov. Ed Rendell. The effort would affect people who have become accustomed to the convenience and effectiveness of communicating by cell phone.

Sponsored by Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, the bill would ban hand-held cell phone use while driving in the state. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” device would still be permitted.

Shapiro said restrictions are needed in Pennsylvania because the use of hand-held cell phones contributed to nearly 1,200 crashes in the state in 2004.

The measure would make it a primary offense to drive while using a hand-held phone. Violators would be fined $250. Emergency calls would be exempted.

Currently, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles. No state prohibits hands-free usage.

That would all change under a separate effort offered by Rep. Robert Flick, R-Malvern.

Flick is pushing a bill that would forbid drivers from talking on cell phones – even hands-free devices – while behind the wheel.

Violators would face $10 fines. Young drivers would face up to $300 fines or community service. As is the case with Shapiro’s bill, emergency calls would be exempted.

While all drivers are subject to the cell phone restrictions and bans, another bill focuses its attention on teen drivers.

Sponsored by Rep. Katharine Watson, R-Bucks, the bill would restrict drivers 16 and 17 years old to one passenger under 18 at a time. Family members would be exempted from the passenger restriction.

State or local police also would be given authority to pull over young drivers for not wearing a seat belt. Pennsylvania law now requires offenders to be pulled over for another offense, such as speeding, before they could be ticketed for failure to buckle up.

One other provision in the bill would require aspiring drivers to spend more time practicing. Existing state law requires a permit holder to complete 50 hours of behind-the-wheel training, have their learner’s permit for six months before taking a driver’s exam and have an adult at least 21 years old with them in a vehicle.

The bill would boost the training time to 65 hours. It would include 10 hours of nighttime training and five hours of experience driving during inclement weather.

Safety also is addressed in a bill to keep repeat drunken drivers off the road.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Gannon, R-Delaware, the measure proposes mandatory jail time for habitual drunken drivers and the forfeiture of vehicle involved. Offenders would face a minimum two-year sentence.

Currently, drivers found guilty of driving while impaired face misdemeanor charges that increase with added offenses.

The bill would allow drivers found guilty of multiple offenses or with high blood-alcohol levels to face felony charges.

Boscola’s bill – SB902 – is in the Senate Transportation Committee. Shapiro’s bill, HB2821; Flick’s bill, HB2745; and Watson’s bill, HB2684; are in the House Transportation Committee. Gannon’s bill – HB2598 – is in the House Judiciary Committee.

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