Canonsburg Patrolman Jim Eckels has a pet peeve: people who text while they drive.
And, in the year that Pennsylvania’s texting-while-driving law has been in existence, Eckels has come to easily recognize when a driver is texting. In fact, he’s issued 10 or more citations for the violation.
“I’ve given out quite a few citations,” Eckels said with a laugh. “I wish they would do away with cellphones altogether, but that will never happen.”
The officer added, “They’re as bad as driving drunk.”
Eckels said he suspects a driver is texting by the positioning of their body, head and hands in the car. He also notices the way they are driving and whether there’s a light on inside the vehicle at night.
“It’s a lot easier to detect at night,” he said.
Eckels pointed out that under the law, the vehicle must be in motion for a citation to be issued, so he often follows a vehicle for a period of time to make sure his suspicions are correct before making a stop.
“Generally I get a confession, but there are those who try to talk their way out of it,” he said.
Eckels and police across the state have been doing what they can to discourage texting while driving.
According to AAA, police in the Pittsburgh Metro area, which includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, issued 196 citations in 2012, coming second to only the Philadelphia Metro area with 545. Across the state, a total of 1,302 citations were issued.
AAA requested data from the state Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts in observance of the law’s one-year anniversary on March 8.
“The goal is to change behavior and get people to stop texting behind the wheel,” said Brian Newbacher, AAA East Central director of public affairs. “AAA is encouraged to see that law enforcement agencies are off to a great start in the process of educating drivers and saving lives.”
Eckels said while he’s a stickler when it comes to the violation, he realizes that he might be fighting a losing battle.
“People are still going to do it,” he said.
Washington County First Assistant District Attorney Mike Lucas also pointed out that the law is a challenge to prosecute.
“Not only do you have to prove they had a device in their hand, but you also have to prove the purpose for use was to text,” Lucas explained.
The law differs from other summary violations because it’s not easily identifiable. The law forbids sending and reading all written text but also looking at any pictures while driving.
“In a typical moving vehicle case, the officer knows there’s been a violation,” he said. As an example, Lucas referred to an officer witnessing a vehicle cross a double line on a road, or having information provided by radar in a speeding violation.
An officer could seize a cellphone to obtain records of use to verify an offense, but they would first need to obtain a search warrant.
According to federal research, sending or reading a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.
A recent poll by AAA found that 43 percent of licensed drivers in the state said distracted drivers were their greatest fear on the road. By comparison, 23 percent of those polled said drunken drivers were their biggest concern.
Ninety-four percent of drivers told AAA they consider texting while driving a serious threat. However, more than one third of drivers admit to reading a text or email while driving during the past 30 days, and more than a quarter of drivers admit to sending a message while driving in the past month.
The no-texting-while-driving law carries a $50 fine plus court costs.
“That brings the total to around $137,” Eckels said.