Pa. police face unique set of challenges with texting law
Unless a driver admits or a passenger tells police that a driver was sending a message, it's difficult to make a texting-while-driving citation stick
By Peter Hall
The Morning Call
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — From Allentown police Capt. William Reinik's perspective, Pennsylvania's law against texting and driving is a challenge to enforce.
"Out on the street, is it very difficult to tell if a person is texting? Yes — I won't make that a secret," said Reinik, who is in charge of the traffic division.
Unless a driver admits or a passenger tells police that a driver was sending a message, it's difficult to make a texting-while-driving citation stick, Reinik said. Otherwise, a person stopped for texting can simply say he or she was making a phone call, which is legal.
That's the main reason, Reinik and other experts say, Pennsylvania's law against texting while driving generated relatively few traffic tickets in its second full year compared with laws in neighboring states that entirely ban the use of hand-held devices behind the wheel.
Many of the state's population centers, including the Lehigh Valley, shared a statewide drop in the number of tickets for texting and driving. But experts said there's not enough information to say for sure whether the law is working as a deterrent.
"I would hate for people to get a false sense of security," said Dr. Bob Barraco, a Lehigh Valley Health Network trauma surgeon who helped develop that organization's Stop Texting campaign. The data, released last week by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, need more context and analysis to be meaningful, he said.
Pennsylvania's texting-while-driving law bans the use of electronic devices to receive or send text-based messages while operating a vehicle in motion. Penalties include a $50 fine and about $90 in court costs.
The law was passed in response to numerous studies that showed texting behind the wheel was a leading cause of distracted driving, which in 2011 contributed to 1,152 crashes and 59 deaths in Pennsylvania.
Across the state, police issued 1,206 tickets for texting while driving between March 2013 and last month. That's down slightly from the 1,235 tickets police issued in the first 12 months after the law took effect March 8, 2012.
But some individual counties saw significant changes.
Philadelphia more than halved the number of tickets its police issued, from 243 in the first year the law was in effect to 91 in the second year. It moved from first to third on a list of counties ranked by the number of citations issued.
Numbers for the Philadelphia metro area, which includes Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, were 545 tickets in 2012-13 and 428 in 2013-14.
Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, jumped from third to first place on the list, with 108 tickets in the first year, and 126 tickets in the second.
Numbers for the Pittsburgh metro area (including Allegheny and six other counties) were 196 tickets in the first year and 232 in the second.
Lehigh County saw 31 tickets in the first year and 29 in the second. Northampton County saw 19 tickets in the first year and 18 in the second. Those counties plus Carbon totaled 59 tickets in 2012-13 and 48 in 2013-14.
Barraco said those numbers could be misleading without reference to the number of drivers in each county. And he noted some police departments may prioritize enforcement of the law differently.
Jenny Robinson, of the AAA Mid-Atlantic in Philadelphia, which compiled the rankings, said it's unclear what caused the fluctuations. She said one Philadelphia police official speculated this winter's unusually harsh weather may have curtailed enforcement.
But law enforcement officials say it's apparent that states with comprehensive bans on using electronic devices while driving do a better job of enforcing their laws.
In Delaware, where a total ban on using hand-held cellphones behind the wheel has been in effect for three years, police issued 19,610 tickets in 2013. New Jersey issued 90,575 citations in 2011, the most recent year for which numbers are available. And New York police issued 55,000 tickets last year.
Lehigh County Assistant District Attorney A. Renee Smith, who handles drunken driving and traffic cases, said the wording of Pennsylvania's law makes enforcement difficult. A person must be reading or sending a "text-based message" while the vehicle is in motion.
Dialing a phone number or entering an address into a GPS app doesn't constitute a violation. And there's no way to prosecute people who send messages while stopped at red lights who, Smith argues, are unaware of their surroundings and as dangerous as those who text while in motion.
"I think Pennsylvania needs a stronger law," she said.
Barraco said building awareness is important. He and others affiliated with LVH's program use videos and a distracted driving simulator as well as stories of those whose lives were devastated by distracted driving to bring the point home.
In the absence of a law that's easier to enforce, Reinik said, changing attitudes over time may be the best way to win a battle he compared to the fight to convince people that seat belts save lives.
"If we can't teach old dogs new tricks," Reinik said, "we'll teach the puppies that texting while driving is very dangerous."
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