Enforcing texting ban presents challenge for Western Pennsylvania police officers
Less than a month before a state ban on texting while driving takes effect, some Western Pennsylvania police officers said they aren’t quite sure how they will enforce the law and that they’re still seeing fingers flying on cell phones while people try to steer.
“I don’t know if they’re waiting until the last minute or the day before,” state police Trooper Robin Mungo said of the motorists she sees texting “all the time.”
The ban will take effect on March 8 as a primary offense, meaning police do not need another reason to stop a driver. Offenders face a $50 fine. The law does not ban talking on handheld phones.
“When that time comes in March and we’re able to enforce the law, we’re going to do that,” Mungo said. She believes the ban will not be difficult to enforce — “You can tell the difference between someone dialing a 10-digit number and writing a novel with their fingers” — but other officers aren’t so sure.
“The challenge of the law is you have to see they were actually texting and not manipulating their phone for other purposes,” Ross police Detective Brian Kohlhepp said, adding that officers might be able to see someone texting if they’re driving alongside them.
Moon police Chief Leo McCarthy said deciphering what drivers are doing might not be easy.
“Their attention can be drawn downward, and maybe they’re holding a phone, but how do you know they’re texting?” McCarthy said. “I imagine it will be difficult to tell whether or not someone is texting.”
Still, McCarthy said he hopes the law discourages texting, even if drivers aren’t in constant fear of enforcement.
“There is pressure from your peers, from other drivers,” he said. “People don’t like to perform illegal acts in front of others. There’s a certain amount of pressure to obey the law.”
Court cases will serve as guidance as to how best to enforce the ban, state police spokesman Sgt. Anthony Manetta said.
“Case law is going to tell us how enforceable this is going to be when we start to make arrests based on what troopers see,” Manetta said.
Defense lawyer Phillip DiLucente of the Downtown firm Evashavik, DiLucente & Tetlow predicted that within five years, the texting ban will be one of the most popular citations police hand out because of how often people text.
He said there’s concern police can use the ban as a reason to initiate a traffic stop.
“It’s a balancing test,” DiLucente said. “I understand the safety issue, but this is just another law passed that is going to (be) an invasion of privacy. Anytime you get pulled over for a traffic violation, it gives the police one more tool in their arsenal.”
Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said he doesn’t believe officers will actively seek out offenders.
“If there’s something that occurs right in their face that they are able to discern and they think it’s an issue, I think they’d be more inclined to get involved,” Long said. “It’s difficult to read the tea leaves as to what it’s going to be like.”