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Bill Advances In Harrisburg To Ban Cell Phone Use by Drivers, But Some Lawmakers Worry About Racial Profiling

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- A bill allowing local police to pull over any driver holding a cell phone to crack down on distracted driving has raised concerns about racial profiling.

Although texting while driving is prohibited in Pennsylvania, drivers can still hold their cell phones and talk.

But that could change soon. Under House Bill 37, using a cell phone for almost any purpose with one hand while driving with the other would be illegal.

"You can use the phone. You can use the technology. But we don't want you holding the phone," Pennsylvania Rep. Rosemary Brown, a Monroe County Republican, told KDKA political editor Jon Delano on Monday. "We want you to use it in a docking station, speakerphone, basically hands-free."

The House Transportation Committee approved Brown's bill. If a police officer sees you in the driver's seat holding a cell phone, you can be stopped and fined $100.

"It appears very strongly that the cell phone has taken over," said Brown.

PennDOT estimates that nearly 14,000 car accidents happened in 2019 because of distracted driving. Brown said that's low because many drivers won't admit they're on a cell phone.

Her bill makes it easier for police to intervene before an accident occurs.

"See someone driving with the phone in front of them on the highway -- I see it almost every day -- an officer would be able to pull you over. Right now, they can't pull you over," said Brown, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

But Pennsylvania Rep. Donna Bullock, a Philadelphia Democrat and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, worries some police may use that as a pretext to stop Black and brown drivers.

"These traffic stops can escalate rather quickly," said Bullock.

Bullock does not oppose HB 37. She just wants an amendment requiring police to keep track of information about drivers stopped so abuses can be determined. Not all police departments do this.

"The current draft of the amendment would require every municipality to record the race, gender, age, and other demographics of the driver," said Bullock.

Bullock and Brown are working together, and Brown hopes an amended bill will become law this fall.

All the states that surround Pennsylvania ban drivers from holding a cell phone.

Brown's bill does have an exception. In case of an emergency, you can use your phone while driving, including a call to 911.

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