State's lack of ban on hand-held phones hampers officers' ability to issue tickets
March 22, 2014 12:11 AM
Police issued 126 texting-while-driving citations in Allegheny County in the past year, the most of any county in the state, AAA East Central says.
By Jon Schmitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the second year of Pennsylvania's ban on texting while driving, police continued to issue a relatively small number of citations.
According to data released Friday by AAA East Central, police issued 1,206 citations statewide from March 2013 through February of this year, a decrease from the 1,302 citations issued in the first year after the ban took effect March 8, 2012.
By contrast, police in New York state issued more than 55,000 texting tickets last year, up from 30,000 the year before.
Why are Pennsylvania's numbers so much lower? Unlike New York, the Keystone State does not have a law banning hand-held cell phone use while driving.
"The one primary advantage of a hand-held cell phone ban is it makes it a lot easier for officers to issue tickets" for texting, said Kara Macek, communications director for the nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association, based in Washington, D.C.
"When the ban is specific to texting, it becomes more difficult because it's difficult to prove that the person was texting rather than dialing the phone," she said.
PG graphic: Allegheny Co. leads in texting (Click image for larger version)
While 42 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, only 12 states plus the district have made hand-held cell phone use illegal, and no state has banned hands-free phone use while behind the wheel, according to the association.
In Virginia, which, like Pennsylvania, allows drivers to talk on hand-held phones, police issued 567 citations for the six months that ended Dec. 31.
According to AAA East Central, police issued 126 texting-while-driving citations in Allegheny County in the past year, the most of any county in the state. That was an increase of 18 from the previous year.
Montgomery County in southeast Pennsylvania was second, with 125 issued between March 2013 and February of this year. Philadelphia County had 93 citations, after leading the state with 202 in the first year of the anti-texting law.
In the Pittsburgh metro area, made up of seven counties, 232 drivers were cited in year two, up from 196 in the first year. In Washington County, citations rose from 23 in the first year to 38 last year; in Westmoreland, the number rose from 21 to 32.
AAA obtained the data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
"The goal is to increase awareness of the dangerous practice of texting while driving," said Theresa Podguski, legislative director for AAA East Central. "AAA advocates a combination of education, enforcement and awareness to change the dangerous habit of texting behind the wheel."
Texting while driving is a primary offense in Pennsylvania, meaning officers don't need to spot another violation to pull someone over. It carries a $50 fine plus court costs of more than $90.
AAA's polling of Pennsylvania drivers found that 43 percent considered distracted driving the No. 1 threat on the roads, compared with 23 percent who said drunken driving was their biggest fear.
Ms. Macek said while the danger of texting is a "no-brainer" that has led to widespread bans, states have been slower to restrict hand-held phone use, despite studies that show such activity also is distracting. "Even hands-free is distracting," she said. "Our message continues to be that drivers should focus on driving."
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.
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