2009-04-30 / Local & State

Pa. House Rejects Total Ban On Driver Cell Phones


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania drivers don't have to hang up but they would face tougher fines, under a bill advancing through the Legislature, if police think their cell phones have caused erratic driving.

The House of Representatives on Wednesday narrowly defeated a measure that would have banned the use of hand-held cell phones or sending text messages from behind the wheel. But shortly afterward, the House voted overwhelmingly to impose an additional $50 fine on those caught driving carelessly if they also had been using a hand-held device.

"We're focusing attention on the behavior that is actually the dangerous part,'' said Rep. Chris Ross, R-Chester, the successful measure's sponsor. "We're also sending a pretty clear message to people that they need to keep their eyes on the road.''

The amendment that Ross inserted into a bill designed to improve teen safety on the road fines "distracted'' drivers if, after being caught violating the careless driving statute, police find they were on the phone, texting, drinking, eating or reading.

"For the benefit of the police who are looking at drivers going by on the road, the carelessness is a much better entry point to this discussion,'' Ross said.

The rival approach, sponsored by Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, would have allowed police to pull over and cite anyone they observed using a hand-held phone or tapping out a text message.

Shapiro said state records show there have been nearly 7,000 accidents on Pennsylvania roads since 2002 in which the driver was using a hand-held communications device, but only 425 in which they were using a hands-free device such as Bluetooth.

Republican opponents expressed doubt that police would be able to enforce such a law, and argued for addressing the broader issue of distracted drivers.

"What we really need to do is focus the general public on concentrating on their driving, not applying makeup, not eating fast food because it's convenient for us,'' said Rep. Ron Miller, R-York. "I question whether the handheld is the real culprit here.''

The bill would limit how many under-18 passengers a junior driver can transport, increase training for teen drivers and make several other changes to improve safety.

Other defeated amendments would have speeded up completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway project in southwestern Pennsylvania and prevented the state from continuing to pursue federal approval for tolls on Interstate 80.

If the teen driving bill passes the House, it will require passage by the Senate before it goes to the governor for his consideration.

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