State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Little appetite for revisiting texting ban among lawmakers

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 30, 2012 9:51 PM

Yesterday we took a look at the state’s texting-while-driving ban, coming up on its six-month anniversary.  Forgive the texting patois: police say the law has g2g

“How in fact are we to determine and can we see without any question that someone is in fact texting rather than using their cell phone, dialing a phone number?” asked Allentown Police Capt. Daryl Hendricks.  The ban does not apply to handheld cell phone use behind the wheel, nor are police allowed to seize a person’s phone and to confirm he or she was texting before being pulled over.

The original Senate proposal to ban texting also prohibited handheld cell phone use.  That language was taken out by House Republicans.  It was strategy, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House GOP.  For the past four years or so, a few driver safety issues have been lumped together in one piece of legislation – including a texting ban, a cell phone use ban, and new rules for teenage drivers.  The omnibus approach never fared well. 

“It was never been able to get through.  It would just – it would die,” said Miskin.  “So we chose a different tact: ‘Let’s break it up and do it incrementally.’  So we got, teen driving rules – that’s now law.  And we got the texting ban – that’s now law.”

Several lawmakers handicap the chances of passing a cell phone ban this fall as roughly zero.  Members of both chambers question whether it would do much good, when distracted driving is a problem that goes beyond cell phone use.

Senate President Pro Temp Joe Scarnati doesn’t deny the texting ban was “clearly” a product of compromise, but the Jefferson County Republican said making it stronger by outlawing the use of handheld cell phones behind the wheel won’t eradicate distracted driving.

“There are all levels of unsafe driving, and just to take into account a handheld cell phone or a texting device – look, once you’re run over, it doesn’t matter what you had in your hand,” said Scarnati.

Other lawmakers echo Scarnati’s concerns.  Rep. Stephen Bloom (R-Cumberland), is one of seven House members who voted against the texting ban, on the advice from police who told him it was deeply flawed.  But when it comes to prohibiting drivers from using handheld cell phones at all, Bloom is circumspect.  “I’d like to see more emphasis on practical enforcement and strengthening of distracted driving laws overall, rather than just one type,” he said.

Rep. Tom Creighton (R-Lancaster) also voted against the texting ban.  “I thought the bill was inadequate… I was just rebellious,” he said.  But the point about a simple cell phone ban being too narrow resonates with him.  He’s looking for some way to empower police to prosecute all kinds of distracted driving. 

“I guess the question is, how do they do it?” said Creighton.  “How do they verify it?  How do they prove it happened?”

Published in State House Sound Bites

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