State lawmakers try to curb driver distractions
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HARRISBURG -- State legislators insist they aren't trying to be too intrusive when it comes to telling motorists what they can do while they drive. They say they just want to keep more Pennsylvanians alive.
The House Transportation Committee held an extensive hearing yesterday on four new bills that fall under the heading of "preventing distracted driving."
State Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, is pushing House Bill 1827, to outlaw the use of hand-held cell phones by motorists.
PennDOT statistics show there were 5,715 accidents linked to the use of hand-held phones in Pennsylvania from 2002 to 2006, he said. He would permit hands-free mobile phones, such as a Bluetooth, even though PennDOT statistics also show there were 367 accidents during the same period involving hand-free phones.
Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, wants to prohibit drivers, especially teenagers, from sending text messages on their cell phones or Blackberries while driving. His bill is House Bill 1506.
"Nothing bothers me more than seeing teen drivers using their elbows to steer while texting," said Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona.
"Sometimes they also use their knees" to steer, added Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery.
"Knees and elbows? Good Lord," added Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks, who has previously introduced a bill of her own that would limit 16- and 17-year-old drivers to having only one teenage passenger in a car at a time.
The idea in all of the bills is the same -- limit distracting conversations between teen drivers and passengers.
Mrs. Watson, who is about 50, quipped that "old people," including herself, know how to send text messages too, but never while driving.
Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, has introduced House Bill 1549, which would affect school bus drivers. They would be forbidden to eat, drink or use a cell phone while driving their buses. They could make calls when they are stopped.
The broadest attack on "distracted driving" is being waged by Rep. Christopher Ross, R-Chester. His House Bill 698 would make it an offense for a motorist to become distracted as a result of using an "electronic, electrical or mechanical device, personal grooming devices, food, drink, a book or printed material."
Under the heading of potentially dangerous distractions for drivers, the bill lists "a radio, recording and playback device (such as a compact disc), telephonic device, citizens band radio, television, computer and any other device." Grooming devices include hair dryers or mirrors, which some drivers use to fix their hair or put on makeup while driving to work.
Being seen using such devices would, however, be classified as a "secondary offense" such as not wearing a seat belt, meaning a police officer couldn't stop a driver merely if he sees him changing a CD, eating or reading a newspaper while driving. The motorist would have to be pulled over for a primary offense, such as running a red light or speeding, and then could be charged with the other violation, too.
Some legislators fear that such bills constitute "nanny government," meaning an unwarranted governmental invasion into drivers' privacy. But Mr. Shapiro said something needs to be done because a study by Virginia Tech University and a federal traffic agency showed that "driver inattention is the No. 1 factor in causing crashes."
In the state Senate, Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, also has introduced a bill to ban cell phone use while driving.
Since enacting such bills could anger some members of the public, there is a political risk, and it isn't known when any of these bills will come up for a vote.
First Published October 16, 2007 12:00 am