A new crop of Pennsylvania laws that recently took effect -- or take effect soon -- aim to help make driving safer, guard consumers against identity theft and toughen penalties against certain sex offenders.

Two traffic-safety laws target unsafe driving practices.

Starting Jan. 29, people driving on Pennsylvania roads will be required to turn on their headlights when windshield wipers are being used, including when wipers are only in intermittent use.

This includes any time windshield wipers are on for rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog, mist or smog, the law states, or when conditions prevent drivers from clearly seeing 1,000 feet ahead.

Motorists who violate the new law face a $25 fine, but with fees and court costs, the penalty is closer to $100, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Automatic daytime running lights "meet the law's requirements," said PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick.

'Flying missile': The other law allows drivers to be punished if snow and ice accumulations on their vehicles slide off and seriously injure or kill someone.

A guilty motorist would face a fine of at least $200 and no more than $1,000 for a first offense, Kirkpatrick said.

"Once you're out on the road, especially an expressway ... that debris becomes a flying missile that can cause mayhem, injury and even death," he said.

The law took effect July 10, Kirkpatrick said.

Southwestern Regional Police Chief Greg Bean, who serves as president of the York County Chiefs of Police Association, said the new mandates aren't about raising revenue.


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They're about making roads safer.

"These laws are an attempt to legislate common sense. Because we can still use more common sense behind the wheel," he said.

"These are friendly reminders -- with some teeth built into them."

Many people already turn on headlights in inclement weather and clear snow and ice from their vehicles, Bean said. But not everyone.

Vehicles as weapons: "The laws are for a select few who are in a hurry or don't think it matters," he said. "It's not about the fines. ... We'd like people to conform to these laws without ever having to give out a citation. Vehicles aren't thought of as dangerous weapons, but they are."

Kirkpatrick agreed the new traffic laws "get into the realm of common sense" -- like wearing seat belts and not driving drunk.

"Too many people are dying on our highways, and these kinds of steps will make a difference," he said.

In 2005, there were 43,443 traffic fatalities in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"And the number just continues to grow," Bean said. "We need to continue to do more to improve safety."

A tougher bill, for "reckless failure to remove hazardous ice and snow," died in committee. That bill could have made it a third-degree misdemeanor to even have a hazardous amount of snow or ice on a moving vehicle.

Identity theft: The state's Credit Reporting Agency Law, which became effective yesterday, gives consumers the ability to put a security freeze on their credit reports to thwart identity theft.

It passed unanimously in both the state House and Senate, according to Gov. Ed Rendell's office.

When a "freeze" is in place, credit-reporting agencies are forbidden from releasing a consumer's information to third parties without that person's permission, Rendell's office said.

Credit-reporting agencies may charge a fee of no more than $10 for the service, unless the person is a victim of identity theft and provides a police report as proof, or if the person is over 65.

The freeze is for consumers who have been, or suspect they could become, victims of identity theft, as well as people who simply want to safeguard their identities, according to Kevin Harley, spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office.

Government agencies, private collection agencies and a few other groups can still receive a person's credit report even if a freeze has been put in place.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency estimated that about 4 percent of the U.S. population would be victims of identity theft in 2006. For more information, visit www.IdentityTheftActionPlan.com.

Toughening penalties: The Legislature also passed Pennsylvania's version of "Jessica's Law," named for 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped from her Florida home and murdered by a registered sex offender.

The law increases the penalty for raping a child from an average of six years in prison to 10 years, with possible life sentences for repeat offenders.

Similar bills signed by Rendell about the same time now also mandate background checks for professionals and volunteers who have "significant" contact with children, and increase penalties against registered sex offenders who do not comply with Megan's Law's requirements, such as registering with state police and updating address information, the governor's office reported.

New forfeiture law: And a new state law now allows for the property of a convicted child sex offender to be seized by police, if it was used in the commission of the crime, including vehicles, computers, telephones and guns.

The law is not unlike drug-forfeiture laws that allow police to seize and sell vehicles, homes and other property a drug dealer used to advance his business.

Proceeds of property seized from child sex offenders will either be used to fund other such investigations or be donated to a nonprofit agency that assists victims of sexual assaults.

-- Reach Elizabeth Evans at levans@yorkdispatch.com or 505-5429.