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No federal funds to help enforce Pa. ban on texting by drivers

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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Law enforcement officers across the nation are finding new ways to crack down on motorists who text while driving, which is illegal in Pennsylvania. Distracted driving played a role in 14,372 crashes in Pennsylvania in 2013, or roughly 12 percent of all wrecks, PennDOT data show.

Pennsylvania’s law banning texting while driving is challenging for police to enforce, but not tough enough to qualify for federal money to help them, police and transportation officials say.

Only Connecticut, among dozens of states with anti-texting laws, qualified for any of the millions of dollars appropriated for police in the past two fiscal years.

“When you make a grant program so restrictive that no one qualifies for funding, you negate its benefit. On the other hand, you need to give states something to strive toward,” said Kara Macek, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Governors Highway Safety Association.

“We think a better balance needs to be struck,” Macek said.

In question is the Distracted Driving Prevention Grant program, started in 2012. The government sets aside about $23 million annually for the program, federal Department of Transportation records show.

Governors Highway Safety Association records show the government doled out a combined $9.4 million in grants since the program started. Eight states and Guam received money, using it to conduct enforcement blitzes and anti-texting advertising campaigns.

The DOT did not respond to questions from the Tribune-Review.

Pennsylvania has not applied for program funding. PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said the state is ineligible under federal rules because it does not increase fines for repeat offenders or ban all cellphone use by drivers under 18.

“Pennsylvania has a robust transportation safety effort. Having a texting ban is one of the ingredients to helping us improve safety on the roads,” Kirkpatrick said, adding that the state spends $225,000 a year on an advertising campaign against distracted driving and places portable signs with anti-texting slogans across the state.

Distracted driving played a role in 14,372 crashes in Pennsylvania in 2013, or roughly 12 percent of all wrecks, PennDOT data show. At least one person died in 59 of the crashes.

Police elsewhere have gone to great — and sometimes imaginative — lengths to crack down on texting while driving, peering into cars from overpasses, semi trucks, large sport utility vehicles and even street corners while dressed undercover as panhandlers. A Virginia company is developing a radar gun-like device to detect texting motorists.

“We’re not doing any of that here. We’re not doing anything special, other than being observant,” Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole said.

Pennsylvania’s law, adopted in 2012, bans text-messaging, but drivers can talk on cellphones and use handheld GPS devices. Texting is a primary offense, meaning police can stop a driver just for that.

“We understand the importance of curbing this behavior, but the way the law is written makes it difficult to enforce,” Ross Detective Brian Kohlhepp said, adding that it’s hard for a patrolman to know whether a motorist is texting or punching a phone number into a phone, which is legal.

Ross has cited one person for texting while driving, Kohlhepp said.

The automotive trade group AAA says police across Pennsylvania cited 1,302 motorists in the first year the law was in effect, through February 2013. The state cited 1,206 motorists in the second year, through February of this year.

Despite the 7.3 percent decrease statewide, citations issued in the Pittsburgh metro area surged more than 18 percent from year to year, AAA said.

Police in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties cited 232 drivers for texting while driving in the second year, according to AAA.

“We’re becoming more adept at spotting indicators of people who are texting while they’re driving,” said state police Trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman for the bureau, which cited 750 people since the texting law took effect.

The signs are similar to those exhibited by intoxicated drivers, who are prone to changing speeds erratically, weaving in and out of lanes, and ignoring traffic signals and signs, Reed said.

“Once we engage (erratic drivers) in conversation, often we learn they were texting,” the trooper said.

If a motorist denies he or she was texting, authorities said, police can seek a search warrant for cellphone records — but that can be a time-consuming process, and officers must strongly demonstrate they have probable cause.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].

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