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Shapiro signs Pa. hand-held device ban named for Scranton's Paul Miller

Gov. Josh Shapiro on Wednesday signed SB 37, Paul Miller's Law, making it illegal to use handheld digital devices while driving. Among those joining him were Eileen Miller, to the governor's left, the mother of Paul Miller, who was killed by a distracted tractor-trailer driver in 2010. To the right of Shapiro is state Sen. Rosemary Brown, primary Senate sponsor of the law.
Office of the Governor of Pennsylvania
Gov. Josh Shapiro on Wednesday signed SB 37, Paul Miller's Law, making it illegal to use handheld digital devices while driving. Among those joining him were Eileen Miller, to the governor's left, the mother of Paul Miller, who was killed by a distracted tractor-trailer driver in 2010. To the right of Shapiro is state Sen. Rosemary Brown, primary Senate sponsor of the law.

It is now illegal to use a hand-held digital device behind the wheel in Pennsylvania.

Gov. Josh Shapiro on Wednesday signed "Paul Miller's Law," named for a Lackawanna County man who was killed by a distracted tractor-trailer driver in a 2010 crash in Monroe County. He was 21.

The bipartisan legislation puts Pennsylvania in line with dozens of other states that have banned distracted driving. The law gives police the ability to ticket drivers for using a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle.

Eileen Miller is seen with son Paul Miller Jr. in this family photo.
Courtesy Eileen Miller
Eileen Miller is seen with son Paul Miller Jr. in this family photo.

For Eileen Miller, battling for the ban has been the most personal of fights. It’s a battle the Scranton resident promised to take on when she stood over Paul's body in the morgue.

“I whispered into his ear, when I found out what caused that crash, that I would fight for better laws,” Miller said in a recent interview. “And I knew it would be hard. I just didn't think it would be that hard to fight for such common sense legislation.”

Miller had many advocates over the years — state Sen. Rosemary Brown, prime Senate sponsor for the legislation, and Shapiro himself — but also some opponents.

State law already prohibits texting while driving. But Senate Bill 37, as passed and signed, makes it a summary offense to use a handheld device, subject to a $50 fine.

That is a less strict measure than Miller had hoped for — there were many compromises along the way. Neighboring states have more severe laws. Miller still sees the legislation as an important step.

 “I'm very grateful,” she said.

 “As someone who has endured profound grief caused by distracted driving, this legislation to me means that fewer families will have to suffer the heartbreak,” Miller added. “Knowing that Paul's legacy will be a beacon of protection for other drivers in Pennsylvania means so much to me. I know it's going to save lives.”

Shapiro agreed.

“I have met too many people with injuries they’ll live with for the rest of their lives because they were hit by a distracted driver — and too many families that have an empty seat at the dinner table because of distracted driving,” the governor said.

Brown: 'Absolutely needed'

"This bill is more than legislation, it is a reminder of the power of perseverance and the impact we can have when we prioritize public safety,” Brown said Wednesday.

But getting to this point was a battle that often left Miller, Brown and other advocates feeling frustrated.

Brown, R-Monroe County, recently reflected on the challenges of getting the law passed.

"It was too long for what I felt was something that was absolutely needed," she said.

"I was just very disappointed that every time I would go back with a new legislative session, it always seemed like there was always some reason to not do it," Brown said, adding that various objections over the years came from both sides of the aisle.

Sometimes the objections were about policy points, other times about general opposition to government infringing on personal liberties.

Earlier versions of the bill had called for a $100 fine. Some lawmakers felt it would unfairly penalize low-income motorists or drivers with older cars that don't have hands-free technology.

And those who had concerns about racial profiling successfully pushed for a provision for local police departments to compile demographic data on drivers pulled over in traffic stops. Shapiro, in conjunction with the Legislative Black Caucus, advocated for that amendment to prevent bias in policing.

Brown acknowledged all of those concerns, but sees the law as necessary.

"The fact is, when you start affecting the safety of others, it's very similar to a DUI," Brown said. "We have a DUI law for that very reason. You have a responsibility to not be under the influence when you're driving, because you are going to affect not only your safety, but the safety of others."

That has been Miller's mantra.

"Your vehicle itself is deadly. It's a missile. It's a loaded weapon. And it took one second to take my son's life away. One second," she said.

Gov. Josh Shapiro stands with Eileen Miller during Wednesday's signing ceremony for 'Paul Miller's Law.'
Courtesy Office of the Governor of Pennsylvania
Gov. Josh Shapiro stands with Eileen Miller during Wednesday's signing ceremony for 'Paul Miller's Law.'

Speaking about the legislation last week before signing, Shapiro recalled proposing a ban back when he was a state representative in the early 2000s and the long road to achieving that goal.

"We ultimately compromised and passed a law to ban texting while driving. But we stayed at it and made sure that we continued to try and make our roads safer," Shapiro told WVIA News Friday during an event in Montgomery County.

Brown expressed gratitude to everyone who made the law possible.

"This bill is more than legislation," she said. "It is a reminder of the power of perseverance and the impact we can have when we prioritize public safety.”

Crashes on the rise

In 2023, distracted driving was the leading cause of car crashes in Pennsylvania with traffic deaths rising by 2.25% compared to 2022, according to PennDOT’s annual crash information report.

That report showed 1,209 deaths in motor vehicle crashes, up from 1,179 in the prior year. There were more than 11,262 distracted driving crashes in 2023, compared to 8,330 alcohol-related crashes.

“In 2023, there were over 11,000 crashes in Pennsylvania that involved a distracted driver,” PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said.

“Driving requires 100% of your attention 100% of the time, and this bill – which I was proud to support as Minority Chair of the House Transportation Committee – is an important step forward in discouraging distracted driving and keeping everyone safe on the road," Carroll added.

Enforcement, exceptions

Under the law, drivers can still use their phones to alert emergency responders and to make phone calls, use a GPS, and listen to music, if they are using hands-free technology.

"Once the law goes into effect, troopers will be on the look-out for drivers handling their phones and will conduct enforcement in accordance with the law," said Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Adam Reed.

Educating the public also will be a key component of the new law, Reed added.

"Our team of statewide Public Information Officers will incorporate the change into their driver education presentations and will amplify the new law in news releases and on social media," Reed said. "The contents of the new law will be incorporated into mandatory in-service training and online learning updates in accordance with department regulations."

Miller: The fight isn't over

Miller has taken her message to lawmakers, transportation officials here and in other states and, perhaps most poignantly, to school and community groups.

"I just spoke at Scranton High School. And I tell students life is all about choices. What will your choice be?"

"I use the acronym PASS," Miller added. "P for no phone, A for no alcohol or anything addictive. An S for no speeding. And always, always, always wear your seatbelt."

But it's not just young drivers she is trying to reach.

"Everywhere where I go I have teens are telling me their parents are the ones on the phones," she said. "It was a 28-year-old at the time who killed my son, it was not a teen."

She vowed to continue fighting for stronger legislation.

"I'm gonna say this is the start," Miller said.

It's a battle she fought for her son, and for everyone using the state's roads.

"This is for every family that is in Pennsylvania that doesn't have to have two state troopers knocking on their door to tell them that their loved one was killed by something so preventable as distracted driving,” Miller said.

"I’ve gotten it done, Paul. I did it."

Roger DuPuis joins WVIA News from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. His 24 years of experience in journalism, as both a reporter and editor, included several years at The Scranton Times-Tribune. His beat assignments have ranged from breaking news, local government and politics, to business, healthcare, and transportation. He has a lifelong interest in urban transit, particularly light rail, and authored a book about Philadelphia's trolley system.

You can email Roger at rogerdupuis@wvia.org