A recent analysis of distracted driving laws has revealed that Pennsylvania’s regulations lag behind those of other states in preventing road accidents. However, there is a proposal on the horizon that could enhance these laws, making the roads safer for everyone.
WhistleOut, a telecommunications comparison website, assessed distracted driving laws across the United States, and Pennsylvania received a grade of “D.” The state scored low due to its implementation of only one of the three critical criteria used for evaluation, which includes bans on using handheld devices, restrictions on young drivers using cell phones, and bans on texting while driving.
In Pennsylvania, texting while driving is considered an offense, resulting in a $50 fine. However, the state lacks a comprehensive law prohibiting the use of cell phones and other electronic devices for purposes other than texting. This gap in the legislation has made enforcement challenging, as law enforcement officers cannot easily discern if a driver is texting or engaging in other distracting activities.
State Senator Rosemary Brown, a Republican representing Scotrun, is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 37, a proposed law aimed at prohibiting the use of handheld communication devices while operating a motor vehicle in Pennsylvania. The bill, if passed, would still permit the use of GPS navigation systems. However, it emphasizes the importance of drivers keeping “two hands on the wheel, two eyes on the road, and their mind focused on driving.”
Sen. Brown’s commitment to this issue goes back a decade when she was serving as a state representative. Her dedication to the cause was inspired by conversations with a grieving mother who lost her 21-year-old son in 2010 when a distracted truck driver crossed into oncoming traffic and caused a tragic collision.
While Sen. Brown acknowledges that the best way to use a cell phone while driving is not to use it at all, she recognizes the practical reality that many individuals still use their phones behind the wheel. She believes that lives can be saved through behavior change and that the legislation will encourage the use of hands-free technology by imposing stricter penalties, similar to DUI laws. The bill also includes a provision directing law enforcement to issue warnings for violations during the first 12 months following its enactment.
Senate Bill 37 has progressed to the House Transportation Committee, where Rep. Ed Neilson, a Democrat from Philadelphia and the committee’s chair, has expressed support for it. The governor is also backing the proposed legislation.
However, an amendment related to data collection and potential discrimination in traffic stops has slowed the bill’s progress. Sen. Brown is open to addressing these concerns separately, as she believes attaching them to the distracted driving legislation is impeding its potential to save lives.
Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) indicates that there were 80 fatalities attributed to distracted driving accidents in 2022, an increase from 60 in 2021. Nevertheless, Sen. Brown highlights that these numbers may not accurately reflect the extent of the problem, as individuals involved in accidents do not always admit to using their cell phones at the time.
Joel Feldman, president of the Casey Feldman Foundation and a vocal advocate for distraction-free driving, emphasized the importance of passing a “hands-free” law in Pennsylvania. His advocacy was ignited by the tragic loss of his 21-year-old daughter in a distracted driving accident in 2009.
Feldman’s foundation, End Distracted Driving, provides free presentations and resources to schools and produces public service announcements for traffic safety and healthcare professionals nationwide.
He explained, “My daughter was killed by a distracted driver. It is our children who are most impacted by distracted driving crashes. As parents, wouldn’t we do anything to keep our children safe? Making Pennsylvania ‘hands-free’ will serve that purpose.”
According to WhistleOut’s analysis, no state fully enforces all three critical categories of distracted driving laws. States that received an “A” grade, including Washington, D.C., have implemented bans on handheld devices, texting while driving, and partial restrictions on young drivers using cell phones.
On the other end of the spectrum, Montana received an “F” for having no laws or bans in place to address distracted driving. The push to improve Pennsylvania’s laws aims to bridge the gap and align the state’s regulations with those of other jurisdictions, ultimately contributing to safer roads for all.