The law prohibiting writing and sending text messages from behind the wheel was popular, passing with all but a handful of votes in both the state House and the Senate.
But just because it sailed through the General Assembly doesn’t mean it was a good law, say police who find their hands tied when they try to cite someone for a texting violation.
If the driver says she wasn’t texting, but simply using her phone in another way, the $50 fine isn’t warranted. The ban doesn’t apply to using a handheld cell phone while driving.
“How in fact are we to determine and can we see without any question that someone is in fact texting rather than using their cell phone, dialing a phone number?” said Allentown Police Captain Daryl Hendricks. “How can we say they’re pushing letters rather than numbers? And that they weren’t in fact using their cell phone?”
It’s not as if police officers can just take a person’s phone and check it themselves, said Adam Reed, a trooper with the State Police in Harrisburg – that’s explicitly prohibited in the law.
As a result, Reed said, a decision on whether or not to issue a citation comes down to the driver’s word – police can’t ever know for sure if the driver was flouting the law. “There is no true decisive way [to tell], unless a driver admits to you that they were texting,” said Reed.
When it was in bill form, the texting ban included language to prohibit all handheld cell phone use while driving. That language was stripped out before final passage in the state House, which then sent the scaled-back bill to the Senate. Lawmakers raised concerns about the narrower ban – seven House members and five in the Senate withheld their votes.
The State Police still endorsed the law in a letter to the Corbett administration. Now, Reed says troopers are “thankful” the law is on the books – but it’s only as enforceable as its violators are truthful.