HARRISBURG — A bill that would impose a fine on motorists in Pennsylvania who use a cell phone without a hands-free device easily cleared a hurdle Monday in the state House of Representatives.
The House gave preliminary approval to the bill, 156-40. A final vote on the bill could happen as early as Tuesday.
Under the bill, a $50 fine would be imposed on anyone talking or sending text messages on a cell phone, or otherwise using an electronic device for most other purposes. Using an electronic navigation system would remain legal, as would calling 911 while driving.
The bill would make the activity a primary offense, meaning that it gives a police officer grounds to pull over the motorist. Police officers and emergency responders would be among those who are exempt.
House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, said the public wants a strong public-safety stand on the use of electronic devices while driving.
An amendment approved Monday substantially expanded the scope of the bill from the previous version that was limited to banning text messages on cell phones.
Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, who authored the tougher language, said Pennsylvania would join New York, New Jersey and four other states with similar laws.
"We will save lives and stop accidents from happening by disconnecting distracted drivers from their hand-held devices on Pennsylvania's roadways," he said in a statement.
It also would ban all cell phone use by any driver with a learner's permit or junior license.
Legislators who opposed the bill alternately criticized it as too broad or heavy-handed.
"In the real world of driving, I fear it's going to make us all into criminals," said Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware.
The chamber narrowly defeated another amendment, 99-98, that would have criminalized a much broader range of activities that might distract a driver, but reduced them to secondary offenses.
"Let's send a clear message that all forms of distracted driving are bad, not just some," argued Rep. Chris Ross, R-Chester.
It's not clear how the bill would fare in the Senate.
Mark Meyer, a senior aide to Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, said the committee is currently considering legislation aimed at young drivers and has not discussed the House proposal.
Last July, the Senate approved a bill, 44-3, to outlaw sending text messages while driving.