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Scrolling while driving will soon be a reason for Pennsylvania police to stop distracted motorists

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
May 9, 2024

Police officers would have the authority to stop and ticket motorists who drive while using a handheld electronic device under  legislation approved in 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. 

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

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

“We’re trying to prevent people from watching movies while they are driving. We’re trying to prevent them from scrolling Facebook while they’re driving. We’re trying to prevent them from checking their emails or responding to anything else that is on their smartphone device,” Malagari said.

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

If Shapiro signs the bill, using handheld devices would be a primary offense, meaning police would not be required to spot another traffic violation such as speeding to charge motorists with the offense. Conviction under the new law would carry a $50 fine. The law would go into effect a year after it is signed and police would be required to issue only warnings for the first year that it is in effect, meaning it would be two years before the first tickets could be issued.

Sen. Rosemary Brown (R-Monroe), the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 37, championed the measure in response to a fatal crash in her district that took the life of a 21-year-old Scranton man in 2010. Paul Miller Jr. was killed by the driver of a tractor-trailer that crossed into oncoming traffic.

“Getting this bill to the finish line would not have been possible without the advocacy 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, adding her thanks for the support of fellow lawmakers in the decade-long effort.

Rep. Carl Metzgar (R-Somerset) said during debate on the House floor 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 make laws that are applicable for all kinds of behaviors, not specific behaviors, particularly whenever it’s technology,” Metzgar said, adding that the law creates problems for law enforcement, “because it’s very difficult to determine what you are doing on that 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 offense would be nearly impossible to prove, and as such, it strains credulity to believe that violations of this offense are intended to result in convictions,” the ACLU-PA said in a position statement. “The only discernible function of SB 37 is a thinly veiled attempt to expand law enforcement’s power to conduct and justify pretextual traffic stops.”

S.B. 37 was amended in the House Transportation Committee on March 19 to include a requirement for state and local police to report data on the reasons for traffic stops; the 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 Chairperson Ed Neilson (D-Philadelphia), who introduced the amendment, said the language was negotiated between the sponsors, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, state police, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“When everybody left that room, I gotta say nobody was smiling,” Neilson said. “I tell people that all the time because it’s an important piece of this legislation. If one person was real happy with every part of this legislation, that means someone’s hurt.”

The ACLU noted that although more traffic stop data is badly needed, the addition of the data reporting requirement would be “a grim twist” because the effect of the underlying bill would be an increase in police stops, “particularly those that target Black and Brown drivers in Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.