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8,911 cited so far for breaking city's cell-phone ordinance

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.

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 violating a city ordinance, not the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code.

The law was approved in spring 2009, partly because the state legislature kept haggling over possible statewide prohibitions on cell-phone use, including for teens.

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

Since the City of Harrisburg, prompted by "fatal and nasty accidents," enacted a ban in February, the number of violations issued there has been small, spokesman Lt. Robert Fegan said. "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.

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

"It hasn't been actively enforced for several years," Lebanon Police Chief Daniel Wright said 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.

The New Jersey tickets cost $100 plus $30 for court fees.

Philadelphia's system treats mobile yakking and texting like trash - or at least like putting trash out too early. Such ordinance violations are handled through the Finance Department, not in Traffic Court.

Failure to mow lawns, shovel snow, or properly recycle are more typical types of infractions handled 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, O'Brien said. A report issued in mid-May said that of 6,415 citations, only 3,713 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 hearing dates, she said.

O'Brien had no data about citations, if any, issued to skateboarders, bicyclists, or inline skaters, 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 the Vine Expressway - because they are patrolled mostly by state troopers enforcing commonwealth statutes.

A statewide ban would be preferable, Vanore said.

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

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

The House has passed bills that would provide such a ban, but the Senate has backed ticketing only when drivers, including teens, 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 said he hoped legislators might iron out their differences in the next few weeks before tackling the budget, but he acknowledged that differences could prolong the process for months.