Highway safety bills die in Pennsylvania

| 12/8/2006

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania recently wrapped up their work for the year without approving a handful of highway safety-related bills.

One bill was 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 have fined drivers who fail to clear snow and ice from their vehicles.

Boscola said she introduced the bill a year ago 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 - SB902 - would have permitted police to pull over drivers whose vehicles are not cleared of snow and ice. Violators would have faced a fine of between $25 and $75.

Fines would have increased 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 have ranged from $200 to $1,000.

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

Boscola's effort gained notice after the Christmas 2005 death of a woman driving on U.S. 209 in Nesquehoning, PA.

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 bill that failed to gain passage during the session would have banned hand-held cell phone use while driving in the state.

Talking on a phone equipped with a "hands-free" device would still have been permitted.

Supporters, including Gov. Ed Rendell, 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 - HB2821 - would have made it a primary offense to drive while using a hand-held phone. Violators faced $250 fines. Emergency calls would have been exempted.

Currently, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles. In 2008, California is slated to implement its own rule. No state prohibits hands-free usage.

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

Flick sought a law - HB2745 - that would forbid drivers from talking on cell phones - even hands-free devices - while behind the wheel.

Violators would have faced $10 fines. Young drivers would have faced up to $300 fines or community service. Emergency calls would have been exempted.

While all drivers were subject to the proposed cell phone restrictions and bans, another bill that remained in the Legislature when the session ended focused its attention on teen drivers.

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

State or local police also would have been 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 - HB2684 - required 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 have boosted the training time to 65 hours. It would have included 10 hours of nighttime training and five hours of experience driving during inclement weather.

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

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

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

The bill - HB2598 - would have allowed drivers found guilty of multiple offenses or with high blood-alcohol levels to face felony charges.