Pa.'s new texting ban while driving could be difficult to enforce

Posted: November 03, 2011

Pennsylvania's new ban on texting while driving, expected to be signed into law soon by Gov. Corbett, may be difficult to enforce, since cellphone use by drivers remains legal, police officials said Wednesday.

And, in Philadelphia, it would wipe out the city's own 2009 ban on driving while talking or texting, since the state measure specifies that it supersedes local ordinances.

"How do you differentiate between someone who is dialing on their phone, and texting? You can't," said Cheltenham Police Chief John J. Norris. "I can see judges throwing these out of court because we have no way to prove they were texting and not making a phone call.

"The officers will just get frustrated and we will waste a lot of officer time in court cases going nowhere."

The state Senate approved the no-texting bill Tuesday, after the state House stripped out a provision to also ban talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device.

The texting ban would take effect 120 days after Corbett signs it. Drivers would face a $50 fine.

Pennsylvania would join 34 other states, including New Jersey, in banning texting while driving. Nine states, including New Jersey, also prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones.

Proponents of the measure hailed the ban as a lifesaver, even without a ban on cellphone use.

"As a primary law, this will give the police an opportunity to make a stop and maybe save a life," said Jim Lardear, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "Texting requires the taking of both hands off the wheel and both eyes off the road. This law will go a long way to making Pennsylvania roads safer because most people are law-abiding and they will follow the texting law."

AAA surveys show that 95 percent of drivers see texting as a serious threat, though 30 percent admit to doing it themselves, Lardear said.

West Chester Police Chief Scott L. Bohn called the law "long overdue" and said statistics show it was just "common sense." He said he would like to see the ban extended to the use of all handheld devices by drivers.

Just hours after the Senate vote, a teen motorist in Western Pennsylvania, Alexis Summers, 17, of Saxonburg, was killed when she crashed into a tree while texting, state police said.

Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Green said, "I'm very disappointed that people view this as progress."

"Basically, outlawing just texting is meaningless," he said. "The cellphone industry came into Philadelphia and lobbied hard against our local legislation and it looks like, in the guise of supposed benefit to the public, they have successfully taken out our law by working Harrisburg, where they make significant contributions every year."

Michael J. McGrath, Lower Merion police superintendent, said, "I do not see this being a simple violation to enforce or prove in court."

He predicted drivers will claim they were talking, not texting, while driving.

"It will be important to have clear observable violations of the law," McGrath said. "The obvious indication will be the manipulation of the keyboard while driving."

Tredyffrin Township Police Superintendent Andrew Chambers said drivers who are texting "don't typically hold the phone up above the window level" so police can observe them.

When a crash occurs and texting may have been a factor, officers have to obtain a court order and then analyze the phone records, Chambers said.

"We are absolutely against distracted driving of any kind," Chambers said. "At this point I'm not sure how we're going to enforce it."

The measure's primary sponsor was Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R., Bucks).

"The state police put out a letter saying they think they can enforce this," Tomlinson said Wednesday.

Tomlinson said he expected the House to consider a separate bill to ban handheld cellphone usage.

In Harrisburg, after the House approved the texting-only ban Monday, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said that his chamber would continue to consider a ban on talking on cellphones while driving. The Senate had passed such a ban in June, but the House stripped that provision out.

Norristown Police Chief Russell J. Bono said the texting ban "is a start, but I don't think it goes far enough. I'm in favor of a total ban for drivers unless they are pulled off to the side of the road."

Bono predicted "major problems with enforcing" the ban.

Gregory L. Nester, a Norristown defense attorney, said, "If I'm at a red light, how will they know if I'm surfing the Web or looking for my son's phone number to hit a button to call it and put it on speaker?

"It's going to be an extremely difficult thing to prove."

And Nester said he would "fight any effort to get my client's phone record" as an invasion of privacy.

West Goshen Township Police Chief Joe Gleason said the law "has been a long time coming" and "is a move in the right direction for improved roadway safety."

"Driving is such a complex activity to begin with and should not be mixed with a distraction that requires additional complex motor skills," Gleason said. "Something has to give, and that's when the accidents happen."

In Philadelphia, the state ban is a step backward, said Lewis Rosman, Mayor Nutter's director of legislation.

Rosman said the state law would instantly free drivers to talk on their cellphones. Because the state proposal is "not as comprehensive" as Philadelphia's, it is "not as helpful for public safety," Rosman said.

"We would have liked to retain the ability to regulate cellphone usage in Philadelphia," Rosman said.

The 2009 ordinance sponsored by Councilmen Bill Green, William K. Greenlee, and Frank Rizzo banned both talking and texting on a handheld device while driving. To avoid conflict with the state motor-vehicle code, the city made cellphone use a summary offense, essentially a code violation.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or

Inquirer staff writers Miriam Hill and Mari A. Schaefer contributed to this report.

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