Pa Police No Texting Law Is Difficult To Enforce

05.08.12 | Bob Price

Thinking the woman might be violating the state’s new no-texting-while-driving law, the Lower Allen Twp. police officer activated his lights and sirens and pulled her over.

Turns out, she was filing her nails behind the wheel — not exactly safe, but not against the law.

The case underscores the difficulty midstate police are having in trying to enforce the law, which went into effect two months ago.

Upper Allen, Lower Allen and East Pennsboro townships, three of the largest municipalities on the West Shore, haven’t issued any citations or warnings for texting while driving. On the East Shore, there have been no citations or warnings handed out in Susquehanna or Lower Paxton townships, according to the departments.

“Unless you’re above them and can see what they’re doing, it’s hard to tell,” Thomas said. “With everything else going on, it’s one of those things that’s hard to detect.”

Even if an officer witnesses a driver using his or her phone, it’s still difficult to prove they’re texting, police said.

On March 8, Pennsylvania became the 35th state to ban texting while driving. It is a primary offense, meaning the police can stop drivers for texting behind the wheel and no other violation. The fine is $50.

In Lebanon County, Palmyra police have issued one citation for texting, and that driver pleaded guilty, Chief Stanley Jasinski Jr. said. The driver admitted to reading a text while the car was in motion, the chief said.

State police have issued 42 citations under the law as of April 27, the most recent data available, state police spokeswoman Maria Finn said.

State police at Harrisburg have issued three citations and state police at Newport have issued one.

There have been 334 traffic stops in Harrisburg since March 8. Lt. Robert Fegan said he “seriously doubts” any were for texting.

“There’s no way an officer can determine what a person is doing unless they stop them and the person is honest,” Fegan said. “Therein lies the dilemma.”

While the law is commonly referred to as the texting ban, it can also apply to updating a Facebook status, sending a tweet on Twitter or anything that involves composing a message, said Harrisburg attorney Ed Spreha, who explained the law to a group of district judges on Monday.

Many of the judges on the panel seemed to think the law would be hard to enforce, Spreha said.

“There are so many things someone can do with a phone,” Spreha said. “Something like an iPhone, there are so many applications that are not illegal, how can police prove what an individual was doing was texting or composing a written message?”

With only a minor fine and no points involved, Spreha said there’s a good chance a lot of people won’t challenge such a citation. However, the decision could backfire with potential increases to insurance premiums and civil liability. In addition, it could come into play in criminal cases years down the road.

“Suppose someone was cited three or four times in the past for texting,” Spreha said. “Those prior convictions could be used against that person.”

The big challenge for the courts to decide is whether it’s reasonable to suspect someone is violating the law when all a police officer witnesses is a driver manipulating a cellphone, Spreha said.

Upper Allen Twp. Police Chief James Adams believes all cellphone use should be banned while driving, with the exceptions being hands-free devices and emergencies.

Adams said he doesn’t understand how it is any more dangerous to text someone while driving than to punch in an address to a GPS application on your phone or scroll through your address book to find a number, both of which appear permissible under the law.

A PennLive survey in March asked readers: “How often do you text while driving?” It wasn’t a scientific poll, but the survey garnered more than 1,000 responses.

Of those, 54.2 percent said they never text and drive, and 19.5 percent said they rarely do it. As for the rest, 15.2 percent said they do it occasionally, and 11 percent said they do it very often.

To inform drivers of the new law, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is using its Twitter account and message signs on the highways, PennDOT District 8 spokesman Michael Crochunis said. The agency hasn’t spent any money on advertising or public education, he said.

Some police departments, such as Carlisle, require officers to give warnings for the first 30 days after a traffic law is enacted to educate the public and give them time to learn the new law.

But there are some obvious loopholes in the law, making it hard to enforce, Carlisle police Lt. Michael Dzezinski said.

“Had we opted to cite the few motorist that we’ve stopped, we would’ve been hard pressed to prove that they were actually texting versus checking an address on their phone’s GPS or dialing a phone number in order to engage in a telephone conversation, all of which are permitted under the new law,” Dzezinski said.

However, in cases involving serious traffic crashes, there are ways to prove a driver actually was texting. Investigators would push for a search warrant or subpoena the driver’s cellphone records in such cases, Dzezinski said.

Under the law, an officer can conclude that a driver was texting while driving based on sight, statements made by the driver or passengers or, if necessary, by obtaining cellphone records.

“I suspect that the taxpayers of the borough wouldn’t support having an officer off the street for several hours in order to prepare and execute such a warrant for a simple traffic violation resulting in a minimal fine,” Dzezinski said.