Bills to limit driver distractions sidelined in Pennsylvania

| 12/20/2007

The work year in the Pennsylvania statehouse is coming to a close without passage of a bill that would prohibit drivers in the state from talking on hand-held cell phones and text messaging while driving. However, it isn’t a dead issue.

Sponsored by Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, the bill would outlaw the use of hand-held cell phones while behind the wheel. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” accessory would still be permitted.

The measure – HB1827 – remained in the House Transportation Committee when lawmakers started wrapping up the 2007 regular session. It can be brought back for consideration there during the session that begins Jan. 1.

Shapiro’s bill would make usage of a hand-held device a primary offense. Violators would face $50 fines. Exceptions would be made for emergency calls.

Another bill that will have to wait until next year for additional consideration focuses on text messaging while at the wheel. Sponsored by Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, it would prohibit operating a motor vehicle while reading, typing or sending text messages on an electronic wireless device, such as a BlackBerry.

People found to be “texting” while driving would face $100 fines. It also would be considered a primary offense.

Supporters of the legislative efforts point to figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Agency data shows there were 1,241 crashes in the state in 2006 involving drivers who used hand-held devices. Only 60 crashes involved drivers using hands-free devices.

Opponents of cell phone restrictions say that talking on cell phones is no more distracting than eating, drinking or changing radio stations while driving. Others say lawmakers shouldn’t be restricting people in their vehicles.

Currently, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles. In 2008, California and Washington are slated to implement their own rules.

Only Washington has included “texting” while driving in their ban. But New Jersey is slated to join the short list next spring.

After the first of the year, DePasquale’s bill – HB1506 – can be picked up for consideration in the House Transportation Committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Pennsylvania in 2007, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor