Pa. legislators consider texting while driving law

July 23, 2011|By JENNIFER FITCH |

WAYNESBORO, Pa. — It is against the law to use a cell phone while driving in Maryland, but it still is legal to pick up the devices and text once drivers cross the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania.

Some of Pennsylvania's biggest cities ban texting while driving, but the Pennsylvania General Assembly has yet to agree on how to address the matter statewide. At least two texting-while-driving bills have been introduced in 2011.

Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 34 states and Washington, D.C., according to information updated this month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Other states ban texting for novice and/or bus drivers.

Fritzi Schreffler, a safety press officer with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said she has been in police cruisers when an officer will point out how a motorist who is texting will adjust speed, often going slower while sending messages.

"At one time, they would've thought you were an impaired driver," she said. "Now, they're checking first to see if you're on your cellphone."

State Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin/Adams/York, said he doesn't think anyone should be texting and driving. He supports requiring hands-free devices such as Bluetooth headsets for on-the-road cellphone use.

"I think it all boils down to personal responsibility, but I think legislation would make a difference by raising the awareness," Alloway said.

The Senate and House are disagreeing on whether to pass handheld cellphone bans with a provision limiting the number of passengers allowed in a vehicle with a teenage driver, Alloway said.

"Unfortunately, what this bill is really falling prey to is Christmas tree-type stuff because people want to add so much to it and it collapses under its own weight," Alloway said.

Senate Bill 314, sponsored by state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks, would make texting while driving a primary offense as well as make handheld cellphone use by adult drivers a "secondary offense" in which police would need to pull over the driver for another violation.

The bill also would prohibit someone in their first six months of driving from transporting more than one passenger younger than 18 who is not a family member, unless a parent or legal guardian is in the vehicle.

Tomlinson's bill passed the Pennsylvania Senate in June.

State Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks, has introduced teen driving legislation in the House every session since 2005-06. She wants to expand training for teen drivers, toughen seat-belt laws and limit teenagers to one passenger who is not a family member.

"You need to practice to get better at a skill," Watson said. "Driving is a skill."

A companion measure to her bill would ban all texting while driving.

Although driving with passengers could be a distraction, teenagers often need to do it to take others to sports practices or activities, according to Connor Stoops, 16, of Waynesboro.

Stoops doesn't text while driving with his learner's permit, but he knows of other teenagers who do text and drive. He said he recently became nervous when he saw an adult driver texting on the highway.

"It could be good to have (a ban), but I don't know if it would make a difference," Stoops said.

Samantha Fuller, 17, of Waynesboro, planned to take her driver's license test last week.

Fuller said she can't imagine having the coordination to text while driving.

"I think a lot of the reasons people get distracted (while driving) is because of their phones," she said.

State Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin/Cumberland, thinks texting and cellphone use among drivers is dangerous. However, he also is concerned about drivers doing things such as reading newspapers, eating and applying makeup.

He supports efforts by state Rep. Chris Ross, R-Chester, to allow police to better address all types of distracted driving.

"This would give them additional tools to enforce people not focusing," Kauffman said.

Kauffman said he sends text messages from his Android-type phone on occasion when stopped at traffic lights, but chuckled when he said his wife would be very unhappy if he tried to do it while operating a moving vehicle.

State Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin, said he tried to send texts while driving a few years ago and realized it was too dangerous.

"I know there is a desire to pass something that addresses texting and cellphone use. I believe that's going to happen," Rock said. "I would be shocked if we didn't do something this fall."

Rock said he agrees that other behaviors are dangerous and could be addressed by legislation.

"It may not be just a ban on texting. It may be that you pay a fine for distracted driving," he said.

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