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State House votes to stop drivers using handheld phones

Police wouldn’t be allowed to stop drivers for only that reason

HARRISBURG (AP) — A divided Pennsylvania House voted Wednesday to ban the use of hand-held phones for all drivers to make calls, although police would not be allowed to stop motorists for that reason alone.

Representatives voted 120-74 for the proposal that would expand current law, which bans any texting and prohibits the use of hand-held devices to make phone calls for truckers and other commercial drivers.

The prime sponsor, Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, said she was disappointed that the House had amended the bill so that police could not stop drivers for using hand-held phones, making it instead a secondary offense that would result in more severe penalties when paired with another violation.

Brown voted for the bill and said she hoped to continue working on the legislation as it goes to the state Senate for its consideration. A spokeswoman for the Senate’s majority Republicans said the caucus has not reviewed the matter and offered no thoughts on its potential for passage.

The proposal in the House split both the Republican and Democratic caucuses, unusual in a chamber where divisions usually follow party lines.

Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, voted for it after speaking about how black drivers could be exposed to racial profiling stops if the language had not been amended to make it a secondary violation.

“As an African-American male who crisscrosses this commonwealth, I am nervous at times when I’m driving in Pennsylvania,” Harris said. “That is real.”

Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, called the bill a step backward, warning it could result in more highway deaths because texting would also be a secondary offense. Current law lets officers pull over drivers they believe are texting, but critics say that does not happen often enough because officers can’t necessary distinguish calling from texting in a moving vehicle.

“This advances nothing, this makes things worse,” said Carroll, who said his in-laws were killed in a texting-related crash in the Philadelphia suburbs several years ago.

Current law carries a $50 fine for texting while driving. The pending bill would make either texting or making calls while driving punishable by a $150 fine.

There would be exceptions so drivers can use hand-held phones to call 911.

The bill also would require driver’s education training for teens on the hand-held device driving prohibition.