How can police officers tell the difference between someone who is texting while driving, which is illegal in Pennsylvania, or dialing a phone number, which is not?
Usually, they can't. And that has meant few citations issued by local police in connection with the 2-year-old texting ban.
Since the law took effect in March 2012, police departments have issued 251 tickets in Allegheny County. Only six of the county's 130 municipalities had 10 or more citations, led by the city of Pittsburgh with 40, according to data provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
"It's a very difficult charge to prove the way the law is written," said Howard Burton, police chief in Penn Hills, where the force had issued only one texting citation through March 31.
"I think one of the issues is you can use a hand-held device to dial 10 digits and that's not considered texting," said Bryan Kelly, chief of Shaler police, who also had just one citation since the law took effect.
Several municipalities -- including Carnegie, Castle Shannon, Dormont, Edgewood, Forest Hills, Marshall and Upper St. Clair -- had not cited anyone, according to court records.
Besides Pittsburgh, the forces that issued the most citations were Robinson, 17; Bethel Park, 16; Monroeville and Jefferson Hills, 12 each; Tarentum, 10; and Hampton, 9. Pennsylvania State Police have issued 32 citations within Allegheny County.
"It is a point of emphasis for us to enforce it," said Robinson police Chief Dale Vietmeier. But the only way an officer is likely to definitively observe texting while driving is in an unmarked cruiser on a four-lane road, he said. "You get on a two-lane road and you're just not able to see it. It's a good law, but it's a tough law to enforce."
Chief Burton said police are not permitted to look at a driver's phone during a traffic stop to ascertain whether it was used for texting. Another loophole in the law allows texting while the vehicle is not moving, so drivers waiting at traffic lights are exempt.
The law imposes a $50 fine for convictions, but court costs add another $102.50 to the price of a texting ticket.
Statewide, police had issued 2,342 citations as of the end of March, excluding Philadelphia, which is not included in the AOPC data. Allegheny was a close second among counties, trailing only Montgomery, where 253 were issued.
Of the 246 cases in Allegheny County for which specific information was available, 143 have resulted in guilty pleas or verdicts; 42 defendants were found not guilty or had the citation withdrawn or dismissed, and the rest were awaiting court action.
Offenders tended to be younger drivers, with 188 of the 246 tickets going to drivers younger than 35. But only nine citations were issued to people younger than 20, a sign that intensive awareness programs for teen drivers may be having an impact. The oldest offender was a 64-year-old Penn Hills woman who was ticketed by Monroeville police in October 2012 and later found guilty.
When the texting law was debated in Harrisburg, a Senate-passed version included a ban on hand-held phone use by drivers, but that was stripped out of the final bill.
Forty-three states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, but only 12 states plus the district have made hand-held cell phone use illegal, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, based in Washington, D.C.
In New York state, which bans hand-held cell phone use, police issued about 55,000 texting while driving citations last year, more than 20 times the number issued in two years in Pennsylvania.
"They did it right when they started into this, and Pennsylvania didn't," Chief Burton said.
A hand-held ban in Pennsylvania would make the texting law "much easier to enforce," Chief Vietmeier said. "It would also make the roads safer."
State Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Monroeville, has introduced legislation to ban hand-held phone use by drivers. The bill sits in the Transportation Committee, and Mr. Markosek said Thursday that he doesn't expect it to advance unless law enforcement officials and the public mobilize in support of it.
Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.