Distracted Driving Debate Gets Jump-Start

Six months into Pennsylvania’s texting-while-driving ban, there’s already a push for the state to do more.  Rep. Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland), a former chairman of the House Transportation Committee, wants to ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones.

Markosek’s new bill would mirror the texting ban in terms of enforcement and penalties.  Hand-held cell phone use behind the wheel would be a primary offense punishable by a $50-dollar fine.  No points would be tacked onto the offender’s license, and the phone could not be confiscated.

“As much as we would like to think that, okay, we’ve got the texting ban passed and we can wash our hands of everything… and everything will be fine,” Markosek says, “we are just deluding ourselves into thinking that.”

Some police officers are backing the more comprehensive cell phone ban language too, because they’re finding it difficult to enforce a texting-only ban.  “How can we say they are pushing letters rather than numbers, and that they weren’t in fact using their cell phone?” asks Allentown Police Captain Daryl Hendricks.

But Pennsylvania’s texting ban was a product of compromises, and the will was not there to include a comprehensive cell phone ban this session.  “We have a lot of unsafe driving habits that not only are due to hand-held cell phones, but they’re due to Big Macs and shakes,” says Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson).  “I don’t know how we empower law enforcement to crack down on all types of unsafe driving.”

For his part, Markosek knows the bill likely won’t see action this session, but he’s hoping to set it up to be a priority when the 2013-2014 session of the General Assembly convenes next year.  “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.  It is about the safety of our citizens.”

Ten states already ban hand-held cell phones for all drivers.  32-states ban all cell phones for teen drivers.

Texting While Driving

Corbett Would Sign Driver Cell Phone Ban

Delaware, Maryland and New York all ban hand-held cell phones and texting behind the wheel.  Will Pennsylvania be next?  Governor Tom Corbett would sign such legislation.  Responding to a listener email on Radio PA’s “Ask the Governor” program, Corbett described how he spends a lot of time on the road these days.  Invariably, Corbett says, they’ll pull up beside an erratic driver to find them “texting away.” 

It’s not a new issue in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, but one of the big holdups has often been whether to make this sort of distracted driving a primary or secondary offense.  Governor Corbett says it doesn’t matter to him, and it doesn’t seem to matter to advocates at AAA either.  “A motorist out there really doesn’t know the difference between primary and secondary.  A law’s a law,” says AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Jim Lardear. 

For instance, Pennsylvania’s seat-belt law is a secondary offense, but PennDOT reports the use rate was 86% last year.   

Two bills currently await additional action in the state House.  HB 8 originally addressed only texting while driving, but it was amended to add hand-held cell phones as a primary offense.  SB 314 originally made both actions a secondary offense, but it was amended to make texting while driving a primary offense.

State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Senate Approves Drivers Cell Phone Ban

Texting While Driving

Texting While Driving Would be a Primary Offense Under SB 314

Texting while driving would be a primary offense.  Talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving would be a secondary offense, under legislation that passed the State Senate Wednesday afternoon.  It started out as a simple secondary offense texting ban, but Tommy Tomlinson’s bill was amended in committee to include hand-held cell phones and other language.  On the floor, Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) was successful in changing the texting violation to a primary offense, which means it can be the sole reason a driver is stopped by police.  Violators would face a $100-dollar fine.    

“I personally argue that the whole bill should be a primary offense,” Ferlo tells us, “But I’m in the minority on this issue, so I thought it was tactically appropriate to try to win majority support… on the issue of text messaging.”  The Senate vote was 41 – 8 on the bill, as amended.  Senator Tomlinson (R-Bucks) supports the bill in its current form, but knows the process isn’t over.  “I don’t believe this is the final version of this bill.  I still think there will be continued negotiations and compromise,” Tomlinson said on the Senate floor. 

Up next for the bill is the State House, where a tougher distracted driving bill was amended with bipartisan support last month.  However, that legislation has not yet been brought up for final votes.  33-states currently ban texting while driving.  9-states have banned talking on hand-held cell phones behind the wheel.