Pa. surrounded by bans on texting, talking while driving

Published: Sunday, January 09, 2011

On Jan. 1, a ban on texting and handheld use of a cell phone while driving went into effect in Delaware. The neighboring state's legislature last year voted 189-6 to enact the ban, joining New Jersey, New York and Maryland in adopting distracted driving legislation.

In Pennsylvania, however, drivers — and lawmakers — are still talking and still distracted.

The lack of a state ban on using cell phones while driving is not for lack of trying. Advocates for safer driving laws have been proposing bans on handheld cell phones for several years in Harrisburg. Some municipalities have attempted to pass their own, but state courts have struck them down saying local driving laws must be consistent with state highways.

Hilltown Township in Bucks County was one of those municipalities, enacting a ban after a 2-year-old child was killed when her mother's car was struck by a vehicle driven by Frederick Poust, who ran a stop sign while making a cell phone call. Because Pennsylvania had no law on the books against cell phone use while driving, Poust was not charged in the crash. During the past year, Poust, who became a school bus driver, was involved in another fatal crash, this time pulling his bus in front of a car carrying a Gilbertsville man who was killed.

Despite those tragedies, Poust or any other driver can still legally talk or text on a cell phone in Pennsylvania.

Jacy Good's story offers another compelling example. She was returning home to Reading with her parents on her graduation day from Muhlenberg College in 2008 when a tractor-trailer crashed into their vehicle headon, killing both parents and critically injuring Jacy. The truck driver had swerved to avoid hitting a teen-ager who had pulled into an intersection while distracted by a text message on his phone.

Good has lobbied for a Pennsylvania cell-phone ban in Harrisburg and even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to advocate for her cause. She has become so frustrated with a lack of response from Pennsylvania legislators that she has moved to New York and is concentrating on educating young drivers about the dangers of texting, according to published reports.

State Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, a longtime proponent of a Pennsylvania ban, recently told the Delaware County Daily Times he is optimistic 2011 may be the year the Keystone State enacts a ban of its own.

"I already have about 50 co-sponsors — an almost equal number of Democrats and Republicans," he said.

Shapiro was among those frustrated last year when the Senate refused to sign off on a House ban bill very similar to Delaware's and then watered down a teen-driving safety bill to make any use of a wireless device by junior drivers a secondary offense, meaning a police officer could not stop a teen using a cell phone on that basis alone.

"They are clearly wrong on this issue and public opinion is on our side," said Shapiro, citing a recent poll which found 85 percent of Pennsylvanians support a handheld ban. "State police, the District Attorneys Association, health care institutions like CHOP, they all support it."

Some legislators blame the packaging of distracted driving with teen passenger limits as the reason neither has passed. Passenger limits are also in place in neighboring states.

A 2009 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study concluded the risk of a crash for truck drivers was 23 times greater when texting, and a Car and Driver Magazine determined drunken drivers had much better reaction times than drivers attempting to e-mail and text on the fly. Those are the kinds of statistics that have made bans an easy choice for legislators in our neighboring states. Jacy Good has told her story on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg connecting the face of a personal tragedy to this cause.

Frankly, we are baffled that Pennsylvania doesn't get it. Shapiro and others are hopeful this year changes the stalemate. In the meantime, every state surrounding Pennsylvania is working to keep drivers safe — everywhere but here.

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