Pa. ban on texting, driving starts this week

March 6, 2012 8:39:48 PM PST
Joey Castro thinks he can safely text while driving.

The 19-year-old from Tobyhanna said he waits until there are no cars in front of him to quickly respond to messages from his mom and girlfriend while he drives to class at Northampton Community College.

Castro knows texting can be dangerous, but thinks he might forget to respond until after class and his mom might worry about him. He knows the keyboard so well, he said, that his eyes don't stray from the road for long.

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But starting Thursday, Castro said he will put his phone away until he's parked. And that's exactly what law enforcement officers want to see.

A law passed by the state Legislature in the fall goes into effect that day, making texting while driving a primary offense - meaning police can pull people over for texting alone.

It includes a $50 fine for a text-based communication, including sending or reading emails. It also forbids Web browsing but allows the use of smartphones for GPS. Your vehicle must be in motion for you to be fined, and talking on the phone while driving remains legal in Pennsylvania.

Area police say they fully intend to enforce the law. State police have said troopers will pull over motorists who might be driving slower than surrounding traffic or bobbing and weaving.

But as the start date nears, police officials and drivers have doubts about whether the law is tough enough to stop someone from dashing off a text while behind the wheel.

"Are we going to be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that somebody was texting? Probably not," Allentown police Capt. Daryl Hendricks said.

The way Hendricks sees it, most drivers who get pulled over will claim they were dialing a phone number. Officers may not seize cellphones from drivers.

Unless an officer is confident about testifying the driver was definitely texting, Hendricks said, the offender might get off with a warning.

Hendricks said the legislation goes only halfway and would be better if hand-held cellphone use were banned completely. About 30 states nationwide bar motorists from texting and many ban hand-held cellphone use entirely.

Allentown's short-lived ban on using cellphones while driving netted 47 offenders during parts of 2010 and 2011. But Lehigh County Judge James T. Anthony ruled the ordinance was invalid and said only the state, not municipalities, can enact such a law.

Lower Saucon Township police Sgt. Thomas Barndt said his department will aggressively enforce the law if it can prove drivers are texting. He hopes drivers will simply abide by the new law.

But confessed texters like Castro doubt people will follow that advice.

"Honestly, I don't think people will stop texting," Castro said Thursday. "People are still going to do it, but if they get caught they deserve it."

Matthew Olick, 22, of Easton, who along with Castro was interviewed at Northampton Community College, said part of the problem is the $50 fine is too low and won't teach drivers a lesson.

Drivers who do get caught will not receive points against their license. A citation may affect some drivers' insurance rates, but the fine will be the sole punishment for others.

Liz French, 43, of Bethlehem said texting should be taken as seriously as DUI.

"It should be the same type of punishment as being in the car drinking," French said at NCC. "In order for it to be taken seriously, I think there have to be real consequences."

While police will try to catch texters if they can starting next week, they're urging the public to be responsible.

"The key is no text message is worth the value of a human life," Barndt said. "I don't know why you would want to do it anyway."


Information from: The Morning Call