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Texting-while-driving law hasn't had desired impact on accidents

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Signs that suggest to police a driver might be texting include weaving in traffic, making longer stops, driving at inconsistent speeds and driving with one’s head down.

Police cited about 1,300 motorists statewide for sending or reading text messages on cell phones while driving in the first year of a state law banning the practice, a trade group said Monday.

But there is no evidence that the law, which took effect on March 8, 2012, is curbing distracted-driving deaths. The trade group AAA said 57 people died in crashes linked to distracted driving last year, down slightly from 59 in 2011.

“I feel the new law is deterring people from texting while they're behind the wheel, but many people are still doing it,” state police Trooper Brandi Lauria-Cox said.

Police issued 1,302 citations for texting-while-driving, according to information AAA gathered from the state's Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

A state police spokesman in Harrisburg said troopers wrote 303 of the citations, slightly less than a quarter of the total.

The most citations — 545 — were issued in the Philadelphia metro area consisting of Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.

The seven-county Pittsburgh metro area was a distant second with 196 citations. The area includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Locally, citations ranged from 110 in Allegheny County — third highest among counties — to just six in Armstrong County.

Leechburg police Chief Mike Diebold said his department issued one of the six in Armstrong. He called the law difficult to enforce.

“You're allowed to text if you're stopped at a traffic light or a stop sign. You're allowed to scroll through the phone to make a phone call. It's legal to dial. So how's an officersitting on the road really know what you're doing?” he said.

“If we make a traffic stop we don't have the right or the power to search that phone,” he said. “To me it's a law that has a good idea but no real thought into the enforcement aspect of it.”

Tarentum police wrote no citations, according to the department.

Harrison police Chief Mike Klein said his department has not issued many citations for texting-while-driving.

“In the totality of citations we've written, it's been very minimal,” he said. “It's not because officers aren't looking for it. You have to see it first and you have to prove it second.”

Texting-while-driving is a primary offense which means a driver can be pulled over for the violation. It carries a $50 fine.

Diebold said he's curious about how many of the citations held up in court. Drivers have a “built-in defense” since it's difficult for police to prove what they were doing, he said.

No information on the disposition of the citations was immediately available.

According to a recent AAA poll, more drivers are fearful of distracted drivers (43 percent of respondents) than drunk drivers (23 percent).

While the vast majority, 94 percent, said they consider texting-while-driving dangerous, more than a third (35 percent) admitted to reading a text or email while driving in the past 30 days. About a quarter of drivers admitted to sending a message while driving in the past month.

“It will be interesting to see if citations increase during the law's second year as motorists become more aware of it and police become more active in enforcing the primary offense,” AAA spokeswoman Jenny Robinson said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com. Staff writer Tom Fontaine contributed to this report.

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