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Mon Valley police contend ban on texting while driving works

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 1:06 a.m.
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.
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.

Early one morning, a car veered off Fifth Street in Charleroi and crashed head-on into a cement barrier.

As the driver walked away from the accident, Charleroi Regional Police Detective Eric Porter's first thought was that the motorists must have had too much to drink.

That was until the driver sheepishly admitted – “I was texting and took my eyes off the road.”

Such admissions, though, are rare – especially since Pennsylvania banned texting and driving.

One year after the law was enacted, few citations had been written in Washington, Westmoreland and Fayette counties.

According to AAA, Washington and Westmoreland counties ranked 11th (24 citations) and 12th (22 citations) in citations issued over the past year among the state's 67 counties. Fayette County ranked 21st with 14 citations issued.

“The numbers of texting tickets mostly followed population rankings,” said Bevi Powell, vice president for community relations for AAA East Central.

“It's a new law, and AAA will continue to monitor the data. Changing behavior involves legislation, enforcement and education.

“We anticipate a change in the driving patterns of motorists as they become more aware of the law, recognize the risk and develop safer habits.”

Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman suggested the law, which took effect March 8, 2012, has helped make the roadways a little safer.

“It's driving the point home that people can't drive and text,” Hartman said. “It's a worthwhile law. People have died as result of texting and driving.”

Hartman said that in addition to citations, many officers are giving motorists verbal warnings.

“We have to look at other indicators,” Hartman said. “Is there a decline in the number of accidents as a result of texting? The sole purpose of the legislation is not to write citations; it's to reduce accidents.

“There's been a big push in the media to not text and drive. I think we're getting the message out there.”

Jay Ofsanik, safety press officer for PennDOT District 12, said it is too early for the state to calculate how many accidents have been avoided with the texting ban in place.

Existing accident reports only give officers three related causes, none of which fall under actions prohibited by the law.

“The law will make a difference,” Ofsanik said. “There is a percentage of the population who will abide by the law.

“You shouldn't be distracted at all. Texting is illegal, but they should also limit use of cell phones, or wait until you pull off.

“There's always a better time to talk.”

Belle Vernon-based Magisterial District Judge Jesse Cramer said some drivers have apps on their cell phones that allow them to dictate text messages, hands free.

Cramer said he has handled just a handful of cases in the past year involving the texting ban. None resulted in accidents.

Local police say the law is difficult to enforce.

“You have to catch them in the act,” Porter said. “If there is an accident, you can check their phones to see if they were texting recently.”

Carroll Township police Chief Paul Brand said officers have to determine if a motorist was texting or placing a phone call.

“Texting is not permitted, but cell phone use is permitted,” Brand said. “Just seeing someone handling a phone is not enough to make a stop. You have to see them manipulating keys, which could be an indication they are texting.”

Brand declined to call for a ban on cell phone use, but had safety advice for motorists.

“I believe that the operator of vehicle needs to concentrate mainly on operating the vehicle,” Brand said.

“A lot of distractions can occur when you are driving. Putting any electronic devices in the driver's hands just adds to the distractions.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or

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