A ban on using hand-held phones while driving approved in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last week divided lawmakers regardless of party – and that split was represented in the delegation of lawmakers from Washington and Greene counties.
By a vote of 120 to 74, the lower house of the General Assembly signed off on a proposal that would prohibit talking or texting on a hand-held device while behind the wheel. But even some supporters were disappointed with the outcome, thanks to an amendment that prevents police from pulling someone over solely if they are using a hand-held phone. Instead, that will be a secondary offense, subjecting a driver to penalties when combined with other violations.
As it stands, it is legal to talk on a phone while driving in the commonwealth, but illegal to text. Critics have argued that the texting ban is rarely enforced because police sometimes cannot determine when someone is texting or dialing.
Local lawmakers were almost equally divided on the bill, with Reps. Natalie Mihalek, Tim O’Neal and Pam Snyder supporting it, while Reps. Josh Kail, Jason Ortitay, Bud Cook and Michael Puskaric opposed it.
Mihalek, a Republican who represents Peters Township and parts of the South Hills, said she supported it because she believes “it’s a matter of public safety.”
“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” Mihalek said. “I see so many people on the road driving and using their phone.”
She was disappointed that it did not make using a hand-held device while driving a primary offense, and held out hope that a Senate bill would be tougher. Mihalek pointed out that nearby states like New Jersey and New York exact harsher penalties for using a hand-held cellphone while driving.
On the other hand, Kail, a Republican from Beaver County whose district includes a slice of western Washington County, said he saw the proposal as a violation of personal liberties, and that people can have legitimate reasons to use a hand-held device while driving, particularly if they believe they are in danger.
“I thought it was too intrusive,” Kail explained. He also said he thought it was unfair to drivers who can’t afford to have a hands-free device in their vehicles.
Currently in Pennsylvania it’s against the law for truck drivers and the drivers of other commercial vehicles to text or talk on a hand-held device while driving. The bill that was approved in the House last week would carve out exceptions for drivers who need to call 911, and increase the current fine for texting from $50 to $150.
Rosemary Brown, a Republican from Monroe who was the bill’s main sponsor, said she was disappointed that police would be unable to stop drivers if they saw them talking or texting on a hand-held device. Rep. Mike Carroll, a Luzerne County Democrat, went further, saying that the bill represented a step backwards because it doesn’t allow police to pull over people who are texting.
“We’re going to be the only state in the nation going in the opposite direction,” Carroll told The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre. His in-laws were killed by a distracted driver in 2012, and Carroll said that, if the new proposal becomes law, police would only be able to cite texters if they “cause a fatal accident a mile down the road.”
It is legal in Pennsylvania to talk on the phone using a hands-free device, and would remain so under this proposal.