For years now, Pennsylvania has lagged behind its neighbors in enacting a ban on handheld cellphone use by motorists. In one legislative session after another, measures are proposed but nothing happens.
The idea is back before lawmakers once again. We urge them to finally produce something other than the all too predictable result we’ve seen time and again.
One tried and true tactic to get safety regulations changed is to make the victim of a related tragedy the face of the issue, with that individual’s survivors testifying to the need to finally do something.
That’s what Sen. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, is doing in her latest push for the bill. Present at the latest launch of the legislation was Eileen Miller of Scranton, whose son Paul was killed in 2021 in a crash involving a distracted driver.
The Scranton resident’s 21-year-old son, Paul, was killed in 2010 in a crash involving a distracted driver, and in most of the years since, Brown has been trying without success to get lawmakers to approve a bill to get cellphones out of the hands of motorists. The Senate Transportation Committee passed the latest version of Brown’s bill by a 13-1 vote.
Miller watched as Brown delivered a plea to lawmakers to stop drivers in Pennsylvania from handling cellphones by making it a primary offense, meaning police can stop a vehicle for breaking the law without spotting another violation first.
“If there is anybody in this room — I would ask you to stand up, I would ask you to raise your hand — if you do not think that cellphone use, people holding their cellphone, texting, distracted while driving, is not a problem,” Brown said.
Miller told a reporter it felt great to be involved in an effort to finally address the dangerous practice that led to her son’s death. We applaud her for stepping up.
Will the proposal gain traction this time? Brown said the version acted on by the committee was the absolute best the Legislature was going to see.
“Right now we are doing nothing,” the senator said. “The texting law is not enforceable. It is not working.”
One significant issue that has come up in past attempts to enact the law has to do with concerns about police using it as an excuse to pull people over in what amounts to harrassment more than safety enforcement. It’s a particularly sensitive issue among people of color. There already has been disagreement among lawmakers over proposed data reporting requirements on traffic stops. That had been part of the bill but was stripped away due to objections by police organizations.
Concerns about pretextual traffic stops are important and should be studied, but they should not stand in the way of making what so many of us see as an obvious safety measure.
Consider that the bordering states of Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia already have these rules in place. Getting in step with them would reduce the possibility of confusion among motorists on interstate trips.
But the biggest reason to do this is for the sake of safety on Pennsylvania’s highways.
Pennsylvania’s ban on texting behind the wheel is simply not enough. In 2022 there were 80 fatalities in distracted-driving crashes, a 10-year high.
Making phone violations a primary offense is essential to having a law that truly acts as a deterrent to a dangerous practice.
There are those who believe this bill amounts to government overreach and that it’s reasonable to assume that people can drive safely while having a phone conversation. Perhaps that’s true, but handling the phone is a clear distraction from the road. And a stronger handheld cellphone ban would make it impossible for drivers to claim they were engaged in a permitted phone use such as navigation or dialing a phone number.
People who need to talk on the phone while driving should consider getting a vehicle that allows for hands-free calling. For anyone else, it’s as simple as pulling off the road to tend to calls and messages.
Motorists must commit themselves to safer driving practices regardless of what the law says, to protect themselves, their passengers and everyone else on the highway.