PUNXSUTAWNEY — Pennsylvania recently became the 31st state to enact a ban on the use of any kind of hand-held texting device by drivers.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill into law, which will take effect March 8.
Calling and texting devices are the worst of a growing set of attractive distractions facing drivers. Corbett said he was pleased to help outlaw a practice that he sees regularly just from the window of his car as he travels the state.
The new law gives police the authority to pull over and cite a texting motorist on sight. Violations would carry a $50 fine. It does not apply to talking on handheld cell phones.
Contrary to popular opinion, Pennsylvania was not one of the last states to ban texting and driving in the United States, said Shawn Houck, PennDOT District 10 press safety officer.
Houck said nationwide, 34 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving.
Thirty-one of those states and D.C. banned texting as a primary offense, Houck said. The law prohibits as a primary offense any driver from using an interactive wireless communication device to send, read or write a text-based communication while his or her vehicle is in motion.
Punxsy Borough Police Chief Tom Fedigan said the anti-texting law is difficult to enforce.
"Our approach is to set up some (traffic) details, but driving on patrol and passing a car and looking in on a driver will be difficult," he said.
Officers posted near the roadside where they can better observe a driver and what he or she is doing while behind the wheel will be more effective, he said.
Houck said police will mainly look for common driving errors that will relay to them that something is going on in the car.
"Whether the driver is intoxicated, under the influence of drugs or doing something in the car that is causing a distraction (causing him or her to) travel over the fault line or the double-yellow line indicates that there's probable cause that the person is displaying unsafe driving characteristics," he said. "If an officer pulls a vehicle over, and an officer asks (the driver) if he or she was using a cell phone or other wireless devices, most drivers would answer yes."
According to a PennDOT texting memo, the texting ban does not include the use of GPS devices, a system or device that is physically or electronically integrated into the vehicle, or a communications device affixed to a mass transit vehicle, bus or school bus.
"Numerous studies indicate that texting drivers typically have their eyes diverted from the road longer than any other distraction," Houck said.
In 2010, there were 13,790 crashes in Pennsylvania in which distracted driving played a role, he said. There were also 1,093 crashes statewide where at least one driver used a handheld phone, with 11 people losing their lives in those crashes.
"It's a whole new ball game once someone is involved in a crash," Houck said. "Once that happens, you'll see more police action."
Fedigan said the level of the investigation is raised when an accident is involved.
"We can request a search warrant, seize the phone and look at records," he said. "Then we can determine if there was activity at the time of the crash."
Fedigan said his officers have seen crashes attributed to texting or distracted driving.
"Fortunately, they were minor in nature, and no one was seriously injured," he said.
Houck said PennDOT constantly gathers statistics on the cause of crashes throughout the state.
Police officers, when they investigate a crash, intentionally ask drivers if they were talking on a cell phone at the time of the crash.
"All of that information is put into the system at PennDOT so we can actually track whether they were talking on a cell phone or texting," Houck said.
With that evidence, lawmakers came to the conclusion that there were enough complaints indicating texting while driving is a problem on the road.
"I think anyone on the highway has witnessed somebody doing something in a vehicle that is distracting," Houck said. "In most cases, it's not a mother tending to a child in the backseat; it's when someone is on a phone call that could've been put on hold or waited until a more convenient time."