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One hand on the wheel, one on the phone: Still legal while driving in Pa.

The evidence says the behavior can be a hazard, and distracted-driving proposals have proliferated during the last several years. But only 16 states have outlawed talking on a handheld cell phone in the car. And Pennsylvania, for another year, is not one of them.

Just 16 states and the District of Columbia have handheld phone bans for all drivers.
Just 16 states and the District of Columbia have handheld phone bans for all drivers.Read moreGetty Images

Q: What's illegal in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, New York, and Connecticut — but not Pennsylvania?

A: Yapping on the phone in the car with that device held right up to your ear, early 2000s-style.

In 2018, it might come as a surprise even to Pennsylvania residents that hanging onto your phone while talking and driving is perfectly legal. Despite evidence that the behavior can be a hazard, and a proliferation of distracted-driving proposals during the last several years, only 16 states have outlawed talking on a handheld cellphone in the car. And Pennsylvania, for another year, most likely won't be one of them.

As all Pennsylvania's regional neighbors have passed laws banning the handheld use of cellphones while driving, bills proposed here in recent years have gone to Harrisburg to die. A bill introduced in 2017 to require the use of a headset or other hands-free device when talking and driving now appears stalled with the summer recess of the Pennsylvania House session.

New Jersey, by contrast, has one of the toughest laws in the country, with $200 to $400 fines for a first offense, up to $600 for a second, and up to $800 plus three points and possible 90-day license suspension for a third.

In 2009, Philadelphia enacted a law against the use of handheld phones while driving, but after about 30,000 citations were issued, it was superseded in 2011 by the state law that banned texting while driving.

This summer, new bans are going into effect in Georgia and Rhode Island — but in addition to Pennsylvania, proposals have failed or look unlikely to pass in Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah. Last year, a bill was passed in Maine and vetoed by the governor. In Massachusetts, the legislature is still in session with a measure passed by the Senate but delayed in the House.

Among states with bans, the strictness of the laws varies from prohibiting touching your phone at all to making only calling and texting off-limits. In 25 of the 34 states without a handheld-phone ban for all drivers, laws are on the books to restrict handheld-phone use for novice drivers to some degree, prohibiting drivers under a certain age or with provisional licenses from using their phones.

Pennsylvania does not have any such restrictions, nor does it prohibit handheld-phone use in construction or school zones as some states do. The most recent bill proposed, sponsored by Rep. Rosemary Brown (R., Monroe), sought to require drivers to use hands-free accessories to make phone calls. It also would make it illegal for any driver under 18 to use a cellphone at all while driving. The proposal has languished in the House for a year.

"Representing a district on the border of both New York and New Jersey, I believe it is not only safer but also more consistent for drivers who frequently travel throughout these border states," Brown said in the bill memo.

Passing effective laws can be tough for a variety of reasons.

"First is the libertarian argument that I have a right to do what I want in my car. … Secondly is, probably more challengingly, the legislators themselves probably engage in this behavior," said Kara Macek, a spokesperson at the Governors Highway Safety Association, which tracks safe-driving legislation nationwide. "It's challenging to pass a law that will inconvenience you."

Plus, research shows that even though most people are aware of the dangers of using phones while driving, they still don't want to change their own habits.

"There's no social stigma associated with using your phone. Everybody knows that it's bad, nobody likes that other people do it, but everybody still does it," Macek said. "There's this real disconnect between the known danger of the behavior and people's willingness to engage in it themselves."

Bans on texting and driving have spread much more easily: Only three states do not have a ban on all drivers texting, and four states consider it to be a secondary rather than a primary offense, meaning drivers can only be cited for it if they are stopped for committing another alleged violation. Some state texting laws, including Pennsylvania's, are difficult to enforce, however.

Traffic codes, not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, are left to states to determine, so the federal government can't pass a phone-use law. It can, however, use funding as incentives for states.

Georgia and Rhode Island are the first states to put a new hands-free law into effect since 2015. Most such laws came into effect between 2008 and 2015: the first one in the country was enacted in New York in 2001.

In Rhode Island, where the new law went into effect June 1, state police have handed out 42 citations and 44 citation warnings, said Capt. Derek Borek. And they've also noticed fewer drivers on their phones than before the law went into effect.

"We've had an uptick in our violations and our warnings throughout the state," Borek said. "Overall, in speaking with troopers, there has been [an] increase of people not using their phones, which is a positive thing for us."

He said that troopers are trying to "get the message out there to people" by handing out citations and not letting people off with a verbal warning, but that the law can still be difficult to enforce, especially in marked police vehicles (drivers tend to put down their phones when they see cops).

The law requires drivers to use a hands-free device while talking on the phone, but allows them to swipe to answer or end a call. Violators can be fined $100, but first-time offenders can have the fine waived if they provide proof of having bought a hands-free device.

"We're just trying to really promote the fact that distracted driving is such a big problem and [the law is] something we've been looking forward to to help reduce the number of crashes and accidents," said Charles St. Martin, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which did advertising and messaging in advance of the change to alert drivers to the new law.

In Georgia, where insurance premiums are high and the number of fatal crashes has been increasing, the new law gets specific. Along with talking on the phone, it itemizes every type of smartphone activity that is illegal, including recording, broadcasting, or watching video. The law took effect Sunday, and troopers there pulled over more than 100 drivers on the first day, according to local news reports.

Though safety officers say any decrease in phone use on the road is a good thing, it is hard to know exactly how many crashes are caused by distracted driving. Police reports can be incomplete, multiple factors can be involved, or drivers can hide that they were using their phones, experts say.

A total of 3,157 fatalities involving a distracted driver were reported in the United States in 2016, according to the National Highway Safety Administration — a number that experts say is most likely much lower than the actual number of crashes.

"We're missing a lot of information on crashes and citation data," said Ann Kitch, a transportation research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "As these states with these handheld bans study the impact of the bans… perhaps other states will kind of get a better idea of what this policy could look like."

This story has been updated to reflect that the House is on recess.