The reviled but rampant ritual of gabbing on handheld cell phones while driving, skating, or cycling is about to become illegal in Philadelphia, as Mayor Nutter is expected to sign a bill in the next few days that will make the city's ban perhaps the most far-reaching in any large urban area. But will it make life safer and saner for everyone on Philadelphia's streets?
"This is a realistic, enforceable bill that will save lives," City Councilman William K. Greenlee said before the 17-0 Council vote yesterday. Handheld use, including texting, is also outlawed for skateboarders, bicyclists, in-line skaters and scooter riders - making this likely the most inclusive law in the country. Greenlee and Councilmen Bill Green and Frank Rizzo were behind the measure. Enforcement would begin immediately.
The new ordinance fines first-time offenders $150; a second offense draws a $300 fine.
It was not hard to find drivers yesterday who voiced their approval of the ban.
"I think it's a good idea," said David Santiago, 27, of North Philadelphia. "I got into an accident with a woman who was on a cell phone a few years back."
Jennifer Phung, 35, of Center City, already has experience with such a law. "I'm from California, and in California we have a ban already," she said. "It works."
The reaction among cyclists was not as enthusiastic.
Jack Treatman, who was riding his bike along Kelly Drive, said he did not think bicyclists, skateboarders, and others included in the ban should be considered the same as motorists. He uses his phone while riding, and believes bicyclists should be allowed to make their own decisions about when to put away the phone.
With a car, "you're endangering a lot more people," said Treatman, vice president of a local coffee retailer.
The National Safety Council says drivers using cell phones are more than four times as likely to be involved in traffic accidents as those not doing so. Five states - New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, California, and Washington - have bans on handheld phones for vehicles.
The Philadelphia law includes exceptions for calling 911 or reporting a traffic accident or an unsafe driver. Police and other workers can talk into a handheld device in connection with work, and anyone can use a handheld if parked off the street.
Critics say handheld cell phones are not the problem - it's drivers distracted by cell-phone conversations who cause many accidents.
"It's very popular, feel-good legislation - we're just not sure they have a lot of impact," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a lobbyist organization for state safety agencies, which monitors such laws. Adkins said he was aware of no other major city with a ban that included as many activities as Philadelphia's.
Adkins said the ordinances would be difficult to enforce, expensive, and confusing. "The best message . . . is that they should hang up and focus on their driving," he said. Motorist advocate AAA says handheld cell phones are just one of a litany of distractions that should be regulated together.
Pam Fischer, director of the New Jersey Office of Highway Traffic Safety, said it was clear in her state that conversation was the villain, but that the handheld phone - "the thing we love to hate" - has become the scapegoat. A state analysis of 3,300 cell-phone-related crashes from 2007 showed that 1,800 involved handheld cell phones and about 1,500 involved hands-free devices, she said. In turn, her office has changed its campaign.
"We retooled our message to say, 'Hang up, just drive,' " Fischer said. "That's all you should be doing in your car."
In its first year in effect, New Jersey's law, which is for vehicles only, resulted in 118,000 tickets. Between 2003 and 2008, when the state had a weaker ban in place that allowed citations only when a driver was committing other violations, police officers wrote only 55,000 total.
Fischer said she was awaiting 2008 data to understand what safety gains, if any, the law inspired.
Councilman Green said the ban could only help public safety. "Certainly, it's something people will think twice about, because they will have to go through an extra step" of switching to a hands-free device, Green said, "and that will cause them to not talk at all, or talk less."
The new law could also face a legal challenge like one in 2000 that struck down an similar ordinance in Bucks County. The case against Hilltown Township established that only the state had authority to enact such laws. It discouraged municipalities including Conshohocken and West Conshohocken from enforcing their own cell-phone bans.
Montgomery County attorney Philip Berg, who defeated the Hilltown ordinance nine years ago, said he would represent free any clients who wanted to challenge Philadelphia's ban.
"I just think it's a waste of time, a waste of money," Berg said yesterday. "Get a state law in effect to ban whatever you're going to do."
Green has said that the need to protect pedestrians established a special condition under which Philadelphia could enact its own law, though all the sponsors said they hoped the local law would spur Harrisburg to act on a statewide ban.
State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery) has proposed a statewide ban that would not extend to nondrivers, as in Philadelphia. The bill is in committee, but Shapiro expects a vote before the General Assembly breaks for the summer.
No state has banned cell-phone conversations completely, though a number of states ban teenage drivers from all cell-phone use. Such a ban is in a bill pending before the Pennsylvania House.
West Chester native Andrew Gerrish, 22, was using his phone on one mode of transportation not included in the ban: a Segway, the two-wheeled machines popular with tourists. The Washington and Lee University senior said that while using a phone made driving - in a car or on a Segway - more difficult, he was wary of the new rules.
"Once you ban one thing, they might start doing other things, like GPS," said Gerrish, adding that the fines seemed "pretty excessive."
Ennes Littrell, a retiree who lives in Center City, said she fully supported the ban, due to several "close encounters" with motorists and bicyclists alike.
"I've seen people who have been talking on their phone without their hands on their handlebars," said Littrell, who was riding her bicycle on Kelly Drive and had left her phone at home. "It's just crazy."