Say Goodbye to the City’s Ban on Cell Phone Use While Driving!
By Jon Campisi
It appears as though Philly’s attempt to make the roadways safer by banning cell phone use behind the wheel may have been for nothing. What’s that? You never followed that rule anyway? Well, carry on, then.
The recent announcement that Pennsylvania lawmakers have finally decided to move on legislation (SB 314) that bans text messaging while driving was in part good news to safe-driving advocates, but bad news for city officials who aimed to make the roads safer by their own hand.
The 2009 law passed by City Council and signed by Mayor Nutter made it illegal for drivers to use a handheld cell phone to talk and send text messages. The ordinance, which was crafted as a local city code violation so as to not conflict with state motor vehicle law, was allowed to move forward only if the state continued to operate without a cell phone ban in place for motorists.
This gets a little confusing for Philly drivers, but essentially this means you can go back to talking and driving (again, not that any of us ever actually stopped talking while driving) but not texting, once the state law takes effect. The legislation, which passed both the state House and Senate on Nov. 1, was sent to Gov. Corbett’s office yesterday, legislative records show. A spokeswoman for Corbett said the governor is expected to sign the bill sometime next week, although she didn’t have specifics as of Thursday afternoon.
The state law would make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning police can pull over drivers specifically for the infraction. Those violating the state law, which is a summary offense, much like any other Pennsylvania traffic law, would be subject to a fine of $50; fines for city cell phone violations started at $75.
The city doesn’t appear too happy about the news.
“If Philadelphia had its druthers, the commonwealth would have approved either a broad cell phone and texting ban or they [the state] would have allowed us to maintain our stricter local law,” says Mark McDonald, Mayor Nutter’s press spokesman. “We had a viable and effective tool that the police department was using.”
McDonald says that since the city law was enacted two years ago, Philadelphia police issued 28,356 citations. At $75 bucks a pop, that’s a nice little chunk of revenue.
Since Nov. 1 alone, city cops handed out 35 citations, McDonald says.
And local police officials aren’t too happy about SB 314, sponsored by Lower Bucks County Rep. Sen. Robert Tomlinson, either. Several told the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday that it will be difficult to enforce the texting ban, since police may have trouble deciphering between drivers tapping a phone’s keyboard to send out a text message, or those simply dialing out to make a call, which would still be legal under the new legislation.
If and when the bill is signed into law, Pennsylvania will become the 35th state to have a ban on texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Only nine states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit talking on a cell phone while driving.
As for the city, there are no plans to formally repeal its talking-while-driving-ban, says McDonald. He said the local law would simply become ineffective, and police would have to shift their priorities to enforcing the state texting ban. Nevertheless, the city is somewhat disappointed that the state law specifically contains wording that says any and all local ordinances regulating cell phone use in vehicles are now pre-empted.
“It’s not the direction that we had hoped the commonwealth would move,” McDonald says.