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Police: Enforcing new anti-texting law almost impossible

May 16, 2012

Local police officials say the new state law which prohibits the use of cell phones for texting while driving is almost unenforceable. Shown here, a cell phone can be easily hidden from police officers. (Photo by Natalie Bruzda)

BROOKVILLE — After two months, local police officials say the state’s new ban on texting is nearly impossible to enforce.

Locally, Brookville Borough Police and Punxsutawney Borough Police officers have not issued any texting-ban citations.

And statewide, the Pennsylvania State Police have issued only 44 citations since Gov. Tom Corbett’s new law went into effect March 8.

“The texting law has not even been an issue with us because it’s almost non-enforceable,” Brookville Police Chief Ken Dworek said. “If you see somebody going down the highway, how do you know whether they’re texting or not, if they have a phone in their hand, unless you see them actually pushing buttons, and that’s almost something that’s very difficult to do — to distinguish between cell phone usage as a phone or texting.”

The new law prohibits drivers from creating or reading texts and carries a potential $50 fine.

The prohibition also covers computers or other devices that can send texts, e-mails or similar messages, but does not pertain to GPS devices or systems that are physically or electronically integrated into vehicles.

Police have been given the authority to pull over suspected violators on sight; however, this has proven very difficult for local police officials.

“We’ve been actively looking, but it’s difficult to determine,” Punxsy Police Chief Tom Fedigan said.

Pennsylvania State Police Public Information Officer Anthony Manetta said even if someone is swerving or crossing the center line, texting cannot be proven unless an officer actually sees the action.

Furthermore, an officer is not allowed to look at a person’s cell phone because that would be considered a search for which a warrant is needed.

And a search warrant would most likely be obtained in only very egregious situations, such as a crash in which someone is injured.

“We would build a case,” Manetta said. “We would conduct interviews of witnesses and the operator. In serious cases, we would get a search warrant for phone records or try to obtain consent from the operator.”

If texting causes a person to veer off the road and into oncoming traffic, a police officer can issue a citation for not staying in the lane, but a texting-ban citation is difficult to issue.

“We are certainly enforcing it — we’ve issued citations, and we’ve gotten guilty pleas,” Manetta said. “But it’s still fairly new, so we’re still in that education phase. We’re issuing a lot of warnings.”

Dworek believes that part of the problem of the new law is that it does not provide for an overall ban of hand-held cell phones.

Fedigan agrees.

“I think it’d be much easeir to enforce if that was the case — hands free,” Fedigan said. “It’s obvious then and much easier to see.”

Dworek said it’s very easy for a person to hide a phone in their lap while texting, out of sight from police officers, and wishes the state would pass a law for a total ban on cell phone usage.

“When it comes to using a cell phone when driving, I’m the worst,” Dworek said. “But if they pass a law, I won’t use it. We need our legislature to disregard the lobbying effort of the big business people. We need to go with safety and saving lives.”

According to Manetta, about 80 percent of teens admit to texting while driving.

Furthermore, any driver is 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash if texting while driving, and teen drivers are 92 times more likely.

“This just shows how extremely dangerous it is,” Manetta said. “The message that we’re trying to get out is that texting while driving is dangerous for several different reasons. It takes your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and your mind off driving.”

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