close
close

Scrolling while driving will soon be the reason police stop distracted drivers

Author: Peter Hall | The star of Pennsylvania’s capital

File photo

Police officers will have the authority to stop and ticket drivers using handheld electronic devices under legislation approved by the state Senate earlier this month and the House on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Gov. Josh Shapiro told the Capital-Star on Thursday that he intends to sign the bill.

Although Pennsylvania banned texting and driving in 2012, the law did not address a multitude of other uses for smartphones and similar devices. The new law would ban the use of handheld, interactive wireless communication devices such as smartphones and notebook computers.

“We need to be sure that we’re not looking to prevent just texting,” Rep. Steven Malagari (D-Montgomery) said when the bill was considered in the House in April.

“We’re trying to prevent people from watching movies while driving. We try to prevent them from scrolling through Facebook while driving. We’re trying to prevent them from checking email and responding to anything else that’s on their smartphone,” Malagari said.

The bill passed with amendments in the House and Senate with bipartisan support, but not unanimity, as some lawmakers questioned whether such a law could be effectively and fairly enforced. The legislation also raised concerns that it could increase racial inequality in policing, creating another reason for police to initiate traffic stops.

If Shapiro signs the bill, using a handheld device will become a primary offense, meaning police will not be required to detect subsequent traffic violations, such as speeding, in order to charge drivers with an offense. A conviction under the new law will be punishable by a $50 fine. The law will come into force one year after it is signed, and police will only be obliged to issue warnings for the first year of its validity, which means that it will be two years before the first fines can be issued.

Sen. Rosemary Brown (Monroe), lead sponsor of Senate Bill 37, advocated for this measure in response to a fatal crash in her district in 2010 that killed a 21-year-old Scranton man. Paul Miller Jr. was killed by the driver of a tractor-trailer who drove into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

“Bringing this bill to fruition would not have been possible without the support of Paul and Eileen Miller, the parents of Paul Miller Jr. … They have been with me every step of the way,” Brown said in a statement Thursday: and added that she was grateful for the support of other lawmakers during the decade-long efforts.

Rep. Carl Metzgar (R-Somerset County) said during the House debate that Pennsylvania’s careless and reckless driving laws already provide the means to prosecute people for using devices while behind the wheel.

“Our job as legislators is to create laws that apply to all types of behavior, not specific behaviors, especially when it comes to technology,” Metzgar said, adding that the law creates problems for law enforcement “because it is very difficult to determine what you should do what you are doing on this phone.

The American Civil Liberties Association of Pennsylvania, which sued the Pennsylvania State Police in 2019 over alleged racial profiling, opposed the legislation.

“The elements of this crime would be nearly impossible to prove, and therefore it strains naivety to believe that the violations of this crime are designed to convict,” the ACLU-PA said in its position paper. “SB 37’s only discernible function is a thinly veiled attempt to expand law enforcement’s authority to conduct and justify pretextual traffic stops.”

SB 37 was amended in the House Transportation Committee on March 19 to include a requirement that state and local police be required to report data on the causes of traffic stops; perceived race, ethnicity, gender and age of drivers; and information about vehicle searches, including whether the search was consensual; and whether a citation was issued as a result of the stop or search.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Ed Neilson (Philadelphia), who introduced the amendment, said the language was the subject of negotiations between sponsors, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, state police, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“When everyone left that room, I have to say, no one was smiling,” Neilson said. “I tell people this all the time because it’s an important piece of this legislation. If even one person was truly happy with every part of this legislation, then someone was offended.”

The ACLU noted that while more data on traffic stops is badly needed, adding a data reporting requirement would be a “grim turn” because the effect of the underlying bill would be to increase police stops, “particularly those that target people of color.” black and brown drivers in Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of newsrooms supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. The Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. If you have any questions, please contact editor Kim Lyons: [email protected]. Follow the Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.