Citing statistics that show highway fatalities increased in Pennsylvania last year, AAA Mid-Atlantic has urged area lawmakers to support proposals that would strengthen teen driver and seatbelt laws and ban texting, according to reports made by Pennsylvania's Montgomery News.
“There is legislation in Harrisburg that we’ve been urging legislators to support,” Rick Remington, AAA’s Philadelphia manager of public and government affairs, said.
Specifically, AAA Mid-Atlantic urged Southeast Pennsylvania legislators to support House Bill 9, introduced earlier this year by state Rep. Kathy Watson, R-144.
The bill would expand training requirements before a teenager could take a test for his or her license, increasing behind-the-wheel training from the current 50 hours to 65 hours. Ten of those hours would have to be at night and five of those would have to be during inclement weather, according to Watson’s proposal.
House Bill 9 also would limit the number of teen passengers to one in a vehicle operated by the holder of a junior driver’s license, those ages 16-1/2 to 18, with exceptions for family members.
Watson’s bill would make it a primary offense for any person to drive a vehicle with a passenger under 18 who is not wearing a seatbelt.
“Across the nation, AAA has successfully urged states to take sensible steps to improve highway safety, steps that could have saved lives in Pennsylvania during 2010,” Remington said. “Pennsylvania motorists cannot afford to wait longer.”
Deaths in crashes on Pennsylvania highways climbed to 1,324 in 2010, an increase of 68 from 2009, according to the latest Pennsylvania Department of Transportation statistics. Fatalities in crashes that involved a 16- or 17-year-old driver increased from 40 in 2009 to 57 last year, according to PennDOT. Unbuckled fatalities increased to 524 last year, up from 451 in 2009.
To date, Remington said, 31 states with the support of AAA have enacted “primary” seatbelt laws that enable police to cite drivers and passengers who are observed not wearing seatbelts. But Pennsylvania has a more lax “secondary” law, under which police can cite motorists for seatbelt violations only if they are stopped for some other offense.
The neighboring states of New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Delaware all have enacted primary seat belt laws, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a national safe driving advocacy group.
“We’d like to see Pennsylvania join it,” Remington said.
According to statistics provided by Advocates, seatbelts saved the lives of about 12,713 people over the age of 4 in 2009. An additional 3,688 lives could have been saved if all passenger vehicle occupants over age 4 had worn seat belts.
Remington said AAA also will urge Pennsylvania to join the more than two dozen other states that have banned text messaging behind the wheel.
Watson’s proposal and Remington’s comments came just weeks after Advocates gave Pennsylvania a failing grade for driving safety legislation, ranking Pennsylvania as one of the seven worst performing states when it comes to the adoption of 15 overall basic laws the group believes are essential to reducing deaths and injuries on the nation’s highways and reducing health care costs.
The group determined that Pennsylvania, through 2010, enacted only 6-1/2 of 15 basic safe driving laws overall and only 3-1/2 of the seven laws it proposes for safe teen driving. Pennsylvania received an overall “Danger” rating, the group finding that the “state falls dangerously behind” in adoption of the basic lifesaving laws.
Watson’s proposal primarily deals with updating the state’s graduated driver licensing law. Another proposal, House Bill 330, which deals primarily with distracted driver issues, was introduced in January by state Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-153.
Under Shapiro’s distracted driving proposal, those drivers under 18 would not be permitted to use a hand-held or hands-free cell phone and would be prohibited from text messaging. Adult drivers would be prohibited from using hand-held devices and text messaging but could use a cell phone if a hands-free device was used.
A violation of the proposed law would be considered a primary offense, meaning police could stop a person for that violation alone.
State Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman, D-19, introduced a distracted driver proposal that is similar to Shapiro’s bill.
Having similar proposals could make legislative passage easier, without compromises having to be worked out between the two chambers, Dinniman explained.
Similar distracted and teen driving proposals failed last year when the Senate watered down stronger House proposals and the two chambers couldn’t agree on compromise language.