Pa. Really Hasn’t Banned Cell Phones While Driving…Yet

October 16, 2007

It’s still legal for drivers to use hand-held cellular telephones on Pennsylvania highways, although that may be news to some people.

Someone — the source has not been identified — recently circulated a professional-looking flyer that erroneously claimed the Legislature had approved a bill to outlaw the widespread practice effective Nov. 10. A rumor spread rapidly through the e-mail grapevine.

One legislative staffer reported hearing from confused friends and relatives from western Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

“Apparently, some national group confused the introduction of a bill with the passage,” said Sam Marshall, a lobbyist for the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, who said the misinformation also made the rounds among insurance agents before his group could dispel the report.

Had such a bill really been enacted, it would have been huge news.

As consumers’ appetite for ever-smaller electronic accessories continues to grow, so do calls for tackling the problem of “distracted drivers.” Legislative efforts to limit drivers’ use of cell phones in Pennsylvania date back to at least 2000, but none has passed.

Nationally, five states — California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Washington — and the District of Columbia bar drivers from using hand-held cell phones behind the wheel, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. Some states impose the ban only on young or novice drivers, while 13 states bar school-bus drivers from using the devices while operating buses, the NCSL said.

In Pennsylvania, Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, has resurrected a bill that would ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones. It passed the Senate last year, but was derailed by leaders of the House Republicans, then in the majority.

This year, with Democrats in charge, “I think we have a much better opportunity,” he said.

This week the House Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Shapiro’s bill, as well as proposals to ban the behind-the-wheel use of text-messaging devices and the use of wireless phones by school-bus drivers.

Shapiro’s bill would ban the use of phones that require the use of the driver’s hand to operate, but it would allow motorists to engage in wireless conversations if they use a headphone or loudspeaker system that allows handsfree operation. He said headsets can be purchased cheaply — or obtained free as an incentive for buying a new cell phone.

Violators could be fined as much as $50, and an exception would be allowed for motorists using their phones to call 911.

“I think people have a right to carry on phone conversations” while driving, he said. “I’m not trying to take away that right, but they don’t have a right to take a 5,000-pound object and render it unsafe for another driver because of that telephone conversation.”

Gov. Ed Rendell has said he would sign legislation banning the use of handheld phones or text messaging devices by drivers, said spokesman Chuck Ardo.

Joe Farren, a spokesman for a Washington-based wireless communications trade group called CTIA, acknowledged that
cell phones can be a dangerous distraction for motorists, but said
eating, reading maps and caring for children or pets while driving
can be just as serious hazards. Besides, he said, police already
have the authority to cite motorists for reckless driving, no
matter what the cause.

“If your phone is going to distract you from driving, don’t use it,” he said.

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