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Phila. gung-ho on cell-phone crackdown

The city's ban on handheld cell-phone use while driving was no empty threat.

The city's ban on handheld cell-phone use while driving was no empty threat.

The collections are somewhat iffy, but the effort is real.

In the six months since Dec. 1, when the crackdown began, police have written 8,911 "violation notices," according to department spokesman Frank Vanore.

Tickets isn't quite the right term, he said, because the $75 base fine is for breaking a city ordinance, not Pennsylvania's Vehicle Code.

The law was approved last spring, partly because the state legislature keeps haggling over possible statewide prohibitions, including for teens.

A handful of municipalities, from Erie to Wilkes-Barre, already had bans, enforced to varying degrees, but apparently no other place has been gone so gung-ho.

Since the city of Harrisburg, prompted by "fatal and nasty accidents," enacted a ban in February, the number of violations has been small, said spokesman Lt. Robert Fegan. "I think it's less than a dozen," he said.

"Prior to the ordinance it was just obvious, but now it's hard to see somebody using a cell phone" while driving, he said.

Allentown began issuing tickets in April with fines of $150 to $300. Bethlehem is gearing up, with 60 days of warnings set to start June 15.

Bucks County's Hilltown Township considers its ban defunct, believing it preempted by state law, police there said.

"It hasn't been actively enforced for several years," said Lebanon Police Chief Daniel Wright of his town's ban.

Philadelphia's cell-violator tally exceeded the combined total of 6,841 in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties from November through April - a comparable six months - under New Jersey's two-year-old statewide ban.

Jersey tickets cost $100 plus $30 for court costs.

The city's system treats mobile yakking and texting like trash - or, at least, like putting trash out too early. Such ordinance violations are handled within the city's Finance Department, not in traffic court.

Failure to mow, shovel snow or properly recycle are more typical types of infractions seen by the department's Code Unit, said Eileen M. O'Brien, who oversees the group.

Parking tickets are handled by the Parking Authority.

Collection of phoning-while-driving fines has been an evolving process, she said. A mid-May report said that of 6,415 citations, only 3,713 of the recipients had paid the fine, which begins at $75 and escalates as nonpayers get more notices in the mail. Ultimately, the matter winds up in municipal court, and 651 of the alleged violators have future hearing dates, she said.

O'Brien had no data of the violations, if any, issued to skateboarders, bicyclists or rollerbladers, who are also subject to the ordinance.

The ordinance is seldom enforced on some of the city's busiest roads - I-95, I-76 and I-676, because they are mostly patrolled by state troopers observing commonwealth statutes.

A statewide ban would be preferable, said Vanore.

But when one might get passed, and how tough it might be, are uncertain.

The law should make handheld cell-phone use while driving a primary offense, as it is in Philadelphia, allowing police to pull violators over, said Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery).

The House has passed bills that would do just that, but the Senate has backed ticketing only when drivers, including teenage ones, are stopped for other offenses.

"The key is not just passing a bill, but passing a strong bill that would save lives," Shapiro said.

He was hopeful that legislators might iron out their differences in the next few weeks, before tackling the budget, but admitted that differences could prolong the process for months.