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Safety concerns prompt authorities to crack down on roadside 'canning' fundraisers

| Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, 9:32 a.m.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Penn State students Joseph Escobar (left) of Orange County, Calif., and Andrew Pricener of Pittsburgh collect money for Thon on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013, in downtown Greensburg.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Penn State students Joseph Escobar (left) of Orange County, Calif., and Andrew Pricener of Pittsburgh collect money for Thon on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013, in downtown Greensburg.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Penn State students Nick Trompeter (right) of Squirrel Hill and Sean Cooley of Severna Park, Md., urge motorists on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, in Bridgeville to donate to the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, known as THON.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Penn State students Nick Trompeter (right) of Squirrel Hill and Sean Cooley of Severna Park, Md., collect donations on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, in Bridgeville for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, known as THON.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Maleena Rindfuss, a Penn State freshman, waits for donations for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, known as THON, on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 at William Flynn Highway and Saxonburg Road.

College students do it.

Firefighters do it.

In fact, despite a state law prohibiting pedestrians from standing on roadways to solicit contributions from passing motorists, thousands do it every year.

Some municipalities look the other way when it comes to their fire departments' annual “fill-the-boot” campaigns or college students' can collections for children with cancer.

Recently, however, municipal officials across the nation who are concerned about safety and liability have gotten tough on roadside collections — often called “canning” or coin drops. They've passed ordinances banning them, started to enforce state laws that prohibit them or restricted collectors to parking lots or quiet streets.

From Wichita to Washington, officials are wrestling with the fund drives, which peak in the fall when the weather is mild and students are back in school.

Locally, Bethel Park, Cranberry, Ross and Whitehall enforce laws that ban canning.

Safety first priority

In areas without police departments, such as Hempfield, state police say they actively enforce the state's law banning roadside solicitations.

“Our main concern is somebody getting hurt,” said state police spokesman Trooper Steve Limani of the Greensburg barracks. “Once they step onto Route 30, they can be cited for creating traffic hazards and other offenses.”

Violators may be fined $25, but that cost can climb to more than $100 with the added costs attached to the ticket, Limani said.

Bethel Park police Chief John Mackey takes a no-nonsense approach to the solicitations, which are banned on the heavily traveled, stop-and-go roads of his South Hills community.

“We can't have people walking in and out of traffic,” he said.

The roadside campaigns have landed some fundraisers in trouble.

Last week, a fire department boot campaign in the upstate New York town of Fort Ann made headlines because state police cited three firefighters for collecting funds along a local road. The biannual campaigns make up about 10 percent of the small department's budget, a spokesman said. The firefighters will appear before a judge next month.

In Pennsylvania, police in Newtown, Bucks County, shut down a collection by students representing the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon known as THON.

It's an issue that's front and center with organizers of THON, a yearlong fundraising and awareness campaign to fight pediatric cancer that involves about 15,000 students across the state and has raised more than $100 million since 1977.

“We spent the summer contacting more than 300 towns/municipalities to learn what they permit and do not permit in terms of fundraising,” THON spokeswoman Dana Giacobello said.

Last year, THON raised nearly $13 million. More than $10 million of that came from can collections, online donations and giving via text messaging, according to the group's official Summary of Fundraising activities.

“Canning is an important part of that. It gives all the volunteers an opportunity to participate in fundraising,” Giacobello said.

Firefighters in Fairfax County, Va., last month set a record in their fill-the-boot campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, raising more than $600,000.

Funds raised through such drives help provide comprehensive health care services to families served by the MDA and help fund research for treatments and cures.

“Firefighters are an integral part of MDA's mission to end muscle-wasting diseases,” said MDA President and CEO Steven M. Derks. “They're incredible allies to have in this fight to find lifesaving treatments and cures.”

Irwin firefighters hold two boot drives each year to raise money for the fire department.

“It helps the fire department,” said Robert Cervi, 84, a firefighter/EMT with 65 years of service. “We're not doing too bad for a small department; we're holding our own. But it helps.”

‘Not worth the effort'

Some local fill-the-boot drives have waned in recent years.

“It's not worth the effort,” said Terry Chambon, chief of the Highland Hose Volunteer Fire Company in Tarentum.

Many towns have tried to work with charities by allowing canning at storefronts but not at intersections, Giacobello said. And police will try to offer warnings when possible, Limani said.

Some towns, such as Greensburg, still allow coin drops.

Penn State students collected donations there on Saturday for the THON campaign.

“We've had no problems or complaints from motorists,” police Chief Wally Lyons said. “The students have been quite cooperative.”

The city handles requests for canning on a case-by-case basis, he said.

“There's a big difference between canning and panhandling,” Lyons said.

In Butler, firefighters stress safety during their annual fill-the-boot drive.

It's done during the city's Christmas parade when Main Street is closed and firefighters in reflective vests move along the street, said fire Chief George Ban Jr. Other firefighters collect funds in front of the fire station, where traffic cones are set up.

“I've been here 23 years, and that's the way we've always done it,” said Ban, who has seen volunteers from other campaigns mixing with moving traffic. “I'm amazed somebody didn't get hit.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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