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Texting and driving 'rampant' in Pa., but few get tickets. Here's why

Distracted driving remains on the upswing; Pennsylvania is a good place to avoid citations.

Texting and driving was made illegal in Pennsylvania in 2012, but most drivers continue getting away with it.
Texting and driving was made illegal in Pennsylvania in 2012, but most drivers continue getting away with it.Read moreLM Otero / AP FIle

You're on a Pennsylvania road, and you're texting and driving. Are you going to get away with it?

Let's put it this way: In 2017, on average a grand total of two citations per municipality were issued by police statewide — and that represented an increase.

From 2013 to 2017, just 8,700 citations were issued under Pennsylvania's 2012 law against texting and driving, according to data released last month by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Last year, that meant about eight per day in a state with nine million licensed drivers.

The numbers amount to a lack of enforcement of a law meant to keep people safe. But police officers say the texting law is really too weak to make a big difference.

Distracted driving is a leading factor in accidents, and local police say phone use remains "rampant." Almost four out of five Americans reported using their phone for some purpose while driving in a 2016 national survey — about 0.1 percent of Pennsylvanians have ever been ticketed for it.

Unlike its neighbors — New Jersey, Delaware,, Maryland, and New York — Pennsylvania doesn't have a hands-free law requiring drivers to keep their paws off their phones while driving. Instead, the no-texting law bans only sending and receiving text-based communications, leaving motorists free to dial phone numbers, use Google Maps, or even scroll through Instagram.

It also gives them plenty of excuses to use if they get pulled over, police say.

"The way the law is written, it kind of ties our hands," said Buckingham Township Police Lt. J.R. Landis. "Anybody that has read the law comes to court and simply says, 'Oh, I was using it as a GPS.'"

Police cannot seize or search a driver's cellphone without a search warrant, which is generally reserved for a serious crash investigation. And when a driver is texting, the person often puts down the phone upon spotting a police car, making it difficult to catch people "in the act," said Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Adam Reed.

"By the time we have them pulled over, they don't have the phone in their hand anymore," said Abington Police Officer Alan Freed, the department's traffic safety manager. And, he added, "I as a police officer have no right to ask you to look at what's on your phone."

Deadly practice

Distracted driving, including phone use and the wearing of headphones, is a leading factor in crashes in Pennsylvania. From 2013 to 2017,  227 fatal crashes involving a distracted driver occurred in the state, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows — just more than 50 per year. And people who reported higher rates of cellphone use while driving also were more likely to report having been involved in at least one crash during their driving history, according to State Farm.

Along with texting, the wearing of headphones or earbuds is illegal while driving in Pennsylvania, although the number of tickets distributed is small. Talking on a handheld phone is against the law for commercial drivers.

The number of citations logged in Pennsylvania increased in most counties last year, to 5,054, compared with 3,336 the year before, the state data show.

"Definitely, you see it every day," said Abington's Freed. The highest number of citations in the state were issued in Montgomery County, according to state data analyzed by the Inquirer and Daily News, and more were given out in Abington than in many other towns in the county.

Freed said the department's officers often give out warnings instead of citations as well. "Our big thing here is education; we just want to make the motorist aware that 'Hey, we've seen you driving and being distracted at the same time,' and we kind of just let them know they need to be more careful."

In 2009, a 17-year-old who was nine months pregnant was killed in Downingtown by a 19-year-old who police said was texting before the crash. A 2016 crash killed a pedestrian in Allentown; a 2017 accident took the life of a 12-year-old in Northampton County. In both cases, the drivers were charged with texting.

Landis recalled a tragic 2011 crash in his Bucks County township, after which he said police obtained a search warrant for the driver's phone and found he was texting for an extended period. "He was just like you or me or anybody else, and he was just texting and driving, and he caused a horrific accident because of it," Landis said.

The penalty if you're caught isn't particularly steep: a $50 fine.

Montgomery was the only county statewide where more than 1,000 citations were issued over the course of four years. Philadelphia accounted for 6 percent of all citations, though the city is home to 12 percent of the state's population.

And in 19 counties, police have given out 10 or fewer tickets per year since 2013. Sparsely populated Sullivan County, west of Scranton, logged the lowest: four total.

But it's not that drivers aren't using their phones.

Half of all motorists reported talking on their handheld phone while driving in 2016, according to data collected by State Farm. Those figures actually have declined in the last decade — perhaps indicating that public-service campaigns are having some effects.

But texting and other activities have been gaining in popularity — including the use of social media and taking photos:

  1. More than a third of drivers reported texting while driving, up to 35 percent from 31 percent in 2009, according to the State Farm numbers. Among drivers age 18 to 25, 61 percent say they text.

  2. Just 9 percent said they read or updated social media while driving back in 2009, but in 2016, with the world having shifted to Instagram, 22 percent of drivers read and 19 percent updated social media while behind the wheel.

  3. And 29 percent used the internet, compared with just 13 percent seven years earlier.

Police say citation numbers are wanting because the law also is wanting.

"Cops, we don't issue a lot of citations for it… and the guys that do are typically the guys in unmarked cars, because they're able to, by virtue of their non-visibility … to get up beside people and actually watch them," said Landis, of Buckingham Township. He said he has even counted the number of keystrokes to determine whether a person is pressing more buttons than required to dial a phone number.

In Ivyland Borough, Bucks County, Sgt. Richard Carey cited the same issues.

"We don't really do a lot here in this small borough," he said. "It's kind of hard; we have no four-lane highways here, [and] it's easier if you … can pull up next to them."

Pennsylvania state police, however, said they are on increased lookout for texting behind the wheel.

"As law enforcement gets more comfortable with the law and recognizing violations of the law, there are more citations being issued," said Reed of the state police, which has handed out a significant proportion of the citations. "Department-wide, we are really doing our best to crack down on it."

When Pennsylvania passed its law, it was during a wave of no-texting laws being passed nationwide, and constituents had asked for it, said Ryan Skoczylas, policy director for Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks), who sponsored the bill at the time.

"It has had an impact," Skoczylas said of the law. "If one of those citations or the fact that this law is out there discourages any driver from distracted driving and in that process saves a life, it's worth it."

Spreading awareness

In the United States, 16 states have hands-free laws and 10 more ban holding the phone for some drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Police officers interviewed said Pennsylvania needs such a law, arguing that enforcement would be much easier if holding a phone at all while driving was illegal.

"The way the legislature drew up the texting and driving law … it's a feel-good thing," Landis said. "If you look at the states that are really serious about it … they all have hands-free."

Such a bill, which allows drivers to make calls using only hands-free accessories, prohibiting them from picking up the phone, has had difficulty gaining momentum in the Pennsylvania legislature. It was proposed this session by Rep. Rosemary Brown (R., Monroe), who said in the bill's memo that it would make road rules more consistent for motorists driving through different states in the region. Drivers can still become preoccupied using hands-free devices, she said, but the distraction is greatly minimized.

A public hearing on the legislation was held in Harrisburg last month.

Officers also said more aggressive public awareness campaigns were needed to help change behavior.

PennDot currently promotes monthly "safety initiatives" that include messages on electronic highway signs, but distracted driving was not included this year, and PennDot did not display any messages for April's Distracted Driving Awareness Month, a spokeswoman said. There are no official permanent signs in Pennsylvania reminding drivers to stay off their phones.

"When you go into these other states and you see the signs that you're not allowed to use these phones at all for anything," said Carey, the Ivyland police officer, "what do you see when you come into Pennsylvania?"

Staff writer Michele Tranquilli contributed to this article.

Clarification: A previous version of this story repeated a quote from State Police Cpl. Adam Reed and mistakenly attributed it to another officer.