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Distracted driving could be easier to enforce with bill

Local law enforcement officials said Tuesday, May 14, the new distracted driving bill expected to be signed this week could be easier to enforce than other bans.

Senate Bill 37 would bar drivers in Pennsylvania from holding a cellphone for any reason while driving, and result in a fine if they are caught. It successfully passed the Senate and House of Representatives last week.

Representing Butler County, state Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-21st, voted against the bill and state Sen. Elder Vogel, R-47th, voted in favor.

State Reps. Aaron Bernstine, R-8th; Tim Bonner, R-17th; and Marci Mustello, R-11th, all voted against the bill, while state Rep. Stephenie Scialabba, R-12th, voted in favor.

Terry Seilhamer, chief of Jackson Township police, said distracted driving has been a growing issue and that the current legislation only bans texting and driving, not other distracting activities.

“It’s a huge problem now,” he said. “The old thing we had to worry about was texting. We had to prove texting. It was almost impossible to enforce.”

He said distracted drivers are sometimes mistaken for someone driving under the influence and will be pulled over.

“It looks like they’re intoxicated because they’re not worried about maintaining their lane,” he said.

According to trooper Bertha Cazy, public information officer for Troop D, distracted driving was a contributing factor in 1,523 crashes recorded by state police last year.

“It’s a significant issue,” she said. “There’s other distractions people can get pulled over for. It’s listed as the cause of a lot of crashes we investigate.”

She said during her time on the force, she has seen people on their phones, applying mascara and eating behind the wheel.

The bill won’t go into effect immediately. The legislation officially go into effect a year after it is signed, and for another year after that, officers will write written warnings for distracted driving.

The ban will be enforceable two years from the date it is signed. Under the law, anyone found driving distractedly will be fined $50 for each offense, according to Seilhamer.

The bill also requires departments that serve more than 5,000 residents to report data collected from officer-initiated traffic stops such as a driver’s race and gender, the reason for the stop and the result of any searches. Those results will then be reported back to Pennsylvania state police once a year for analysis and public release, according to the legislation.

Cazy said if you are cited for distracted driving, it cannot result in points being placed on a license or show up on a driving record unless the person is a commercial driver.

Bernstine said he voted against the bill due to some concerns he had about its enforcement.

“It’s very difficult to prove something like (distracted driving), obviously we have to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

He added that he did feel erratic driving should be dealt with by law enforcement.

An email from Vogel’s office said he “voted in favor of this legislation because it offers an additional avenue for roadway safety to be maintained here in Pennsylvania.”

“Public safety continues to be a major priority in our commonwealth,” the email continues. “With the increases in distracted driving-caused car accidents, many of which have included fatalities ... Sen. Vogel believes this bill is another step forward in preventing future accidents and saving lives.”

Scialabba said “I’ve spoken with our police forces and they believe this legislation will help.”

“Cellphone use behind the wheel is dangerous,” she said. “It’s not unreasonable to expect drivers to hold the wheel and not the phone.”

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