After years of trying, Pa. House finally passes handheld cell phone ban

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After years of effort, a ban on handheld cell phone use could be coming to Pennsylvania’s roads and highways.

But the proposal that cleared the state House Wednesday by a vote of 120-74, was subject to a key last-minute change Tuesday, which will have a mixed effect on the state’s already flimsy laws for distracted driving.

The legislation, sponsored by  Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, will ban driver’s use of “interactive wireless communication devices” while on the road — including all smart phones, but not dedicated GPS devices or electronic devices installed in a car.

The ban will apply to young drivers more than older drivers, however. Drivers younger than 18 years old can be pulled over solely for cell phone use, while drivers aged 18 and older cannot.

“I am disappointed in the product we have, but I do believe there are some very, very good pieces in this legislation,” Brown said Wednesday on the floor.

The compromise language was approved in a procedural vote Tuesday, drawing the support of both conservative Republicans opposed to government overreach and Black lawmakers hoping to prevent police profiling.

“Every time you go out on the road you take a chance,” Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, said on the floor. He authored the current draft language, and defended it by pointing out that the rules for seat belts were similar.

The bill will now head to the state Senate. If it passes, it would need Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature. Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said he was reviewing the legislation.

If approved, the bill would replace Pennsylvania’s current distracted driving laws. Since 2011, the state has banned texting while driving. But the law is too weak and hard to enforce, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2018.

According to the Pennsylvania State Police, state troopers issued 1,215 citations throughout the commonwealth for texting while driving in 2019.

The current fine for texting while driving is $50, with no points on your license — however it is a primary offense. That means police can pull you over soley for typing out a few emojis to a friend even if you are driving within the speed limit.

But under the changes the House approved Wednesday, the fine would increase to $150, and the violation would include all electronic device use. 

However, you could not be pulled over just for using your smartphone or iPad. Instead, the violation could be added onto another violation, such as speeding.

On Tuesday, Brown proposed a compromise bill that would keep cell phone use a primary offense, but with a fine $50 less than what she originally proposed.

That language was adopted with token opposition, then quickly changed about 15 minutes later to Heffley’s language.

Key to the vote were many conservative Republicans, who voted for the watered down language but then against the proposal. 

The Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus also played a role. Sixteen of the caucus’s 22 House members voted for the secondary offense language Tuesday. Some also voted for the weaker bill, then against the proposal overall.

House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, said during floor debate Wednesday that he’s wary of traffic stops while traveling the commonwealth because “racial profiling is real.”

“The truth of the matter is, there are many times when folks are pulled over in Pennsylvania for nefarious reasons,” Harris said. He voted to both weaken the proposal and to pass it.

But other Democrats painted a much starker picture.

“We will retreat from the core position we had, and result in additional deaths,” Rep. Mike Carroll, of Luzerne and the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation committee, said on the floor.

According to PennDOT data, distracted driving was part of 15,614 crashes in 2017, resulting in 58 fatalities.