What You Need to Know About Pennsylvania’s New Ban on Texting While Driving
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on March 8th, 2012
As of today, it’s now illegal everywhere in Pennsylvania to send, write or read a text message or email using any electronic device while you are driving a motor vehicle.
You still can, however, use your mobile phone to talk while driving. Several cities in the Commonwealth, including Philadelphia, had previously enacted tougher laws that banned cellphone use if the driver was not using a hands-free device. As of today, those local bans will become moot because the new state law will overrule those earlier decisions, according to a story in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
It’s enough to leave drivers confused, which is why we here at MyPhillyLawyer are providing this “what’s it all mean” advisory on the new law.
“The statewide law gives police authority to pull over those texting and issue a $50 fine,” the Inquirer reported. With related local fees, the tickets for the offense will amount to about $136. Even drivers using voice command devices would likely be violating the new law since they would still be sending a text message, which is banned by the new rules. “The law does not pertain to GPS devices or systems that are built into a car or truck,” the story states.
Things are tougher and certainly different in New Jersey and eight other states, where drivers are banned by law from using any and all mobile devices while driving. And as we reported in a blog post here on MyPhillyLawyer last December, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that all 50 U.S. states should forbid operators of motor vehicles from using cell phones for calls or texting while they are driving. Whether such a move could ever happen is anyone’s guess.
So why did the border-to-border texting ban happen now in Pennsylvania?
It was a government reaction to a growing problem, according to statistics. Some 14,000 vehicle crashes occurred in Pennsylvania in 2010 that were blamed on distracted driving. Sixty-eight people were killed in those incidents.
The new law will allow police to pull drivers over if they suspect they are texting while driving, making it a “primary offense,” according to the Inquirer. That means that drivers don’t have to be committing another alleged violation, such as speeding, to be pulled over.
Some police departments, though, say the new texting and email ban could be tough to enforce as the state joins more than 30 other states with texting bans, according to a story in The Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era in Lancaster.
“Despite the law’s apparent common sense, its limited wording and undeveloped precedents might pose problems for law enforcement,” the paper reported. “The ban ‘is very narrow in its scope,’ Lt. Todd Umstead of the Lancaster city police told the paper. “It doesn’t say you can’t dial a phone number or look at a phone. I wouldn’t recommend you do either of those from a safety perspective, whether it’s the law or not, but it does present a challenge for us in terms of how we’re going to enforce this.”
Officers will have to make a determination about what a driver is doing with their mobile device if an officer sees someone using it while driving, Umstead told the paper. Mobile phones today include GPS capabilities, games, and more. “We don’t have X-ray vision or extrasensory powers,” he told the paper. “When we see someone typing on a cell phone, it’s not so obvious what they’re doing.”
Under the law, officers cannot take your phone from you without a warrant if they stop you. “If you get pulled over, I can’t take the phone from you and say ‘Let me see if you were texting.’ Obviously that would be pretty intrusive,” Umstead told the paper.
A good thing that could come out of the texting ban is that it could continue to make us all more aware of the real dangers of texting while driving and prevent needless tragedies.
One such horrific incident occurred in January when an 18-year-old Utah girl died after her car smashed into the rear of an oil tanker truck while she was texting repeatedly on a drive home from college while traveling on an Interstate highway at some 80 mph, according to a story on AOL.com.
The girl, Taylor Sauer, “was texting with a friend via Facebook when her car crashed into a tanker truck at 80 miles per hour, killing her instantly,” the story reported. “The tragic irony of the situation was revealed in her phone records shortly after: At the time of the accident, she had been texting about the dangers of texting and driving. Her last message, sent moments before the crash on Jan. 14, said, “I can’t discuss this now. Driving and facebooking is not safe! Haha.”
Sauer was posting on Facebook about every 90 seconds while she was driving, the story reported.
Her parents have since begun a public safety campaign in the news media to try to prevent another such tragedy, according to a report on MSNBC.com.
“Clay and Shauna Sauer, still grieving over their 18-year-old daughter’s Jan. 12 death, have become lobbyists in their home state to urge the state legislature to pass a ban on texting while driving,” the story reported. “Idaho is one of 13 states in the U.S. that has no such law in place.”
The new law here in Pennsylvania is a good start for making our roads safer, but because it could be hard to enforce, it won’t completely solve the problem of drivers texting while operating motor vehicles.
So here are some things to keep in mind:
- You should continue to be careful of other drivers who might be texting and driving. Watch for erratic driving behavior such as drivers who are driving while their eyes are down or away from the road in front of them.
- Obviously, don’t text and drive when YOU are operating a motor vehicle.
- Don’t allow yourself or your loved ones to be a passenger in a vehicle with someone who is texting while driving.
- Stress to your loved ones the dangers of texting and driving.
- Use a hands-free phone while driving and don’t let your conversation distract you from the traffic and road ahead of you.
- If someone begins to text while they are driving, tell them to stop and don’t travel with them.
- Don’t forget to also be careful of distracted, texting drivers if you are a pedestrian or bicyclist. Watch for signs of distracted driving in vehicles around you, such as vehicle drifting, swerving or speeding, then give them plenty of room, if possible.
The effectiveness of the texting while driving ban will be tested over the coming months and years, but it at least is proactive in dealing with a real problem.
And remember, if you are injured in an accident by someone who is texting while they are driving or who was cited for distracted driving, you should be sure to discuss it with a competent, professional and compassionate attorney so you can protect your legal rights. We here at MyPhillyLawyer stand ready to be at your service.
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