Horsham District Judge Harry Nesbitt remembers his first – and only – hearing stemming from a texting while driving incident.
The young, female driver was stopped at a traffic light, head bowed, texting on her cell phone. Behind her, a Horsham Township Police Department officer beeped his horn to encourage the motorist to proceed through the green light. Not pausing from her texting, the young woman instead gave the police officer the finger, Nesbitt said.
The case, Nesbitt said, was cut and dry in that the driver clearly broke the law in failing to adhere to the texting while driving ban that was put into force on March 8.
But, is the law really necessary?
“I’ve told officers for years that if somebody’s texting or talking on their phone … that’s the definition of careless driving,” Nesbitt said. “They don’t have a statute yet of driving while being stupid.”
While the case Nesbitt referenced may seem like an obvious slam dunk for law enforcement officers, local police said instances of texting while driving are not always as obvious.
“It is hard to enforce,” said Hatboro Police Chief James Gardner. “You’re allowed to use your phone. You can dial on it.”
Which means the officer must determine that the driver is texting and not simply talking on the phone in order for police to cite a motorist, Gardner said. To date, Gardner said Hatboro police have only issued warnings for texting while driving.
Since the driving while texting ban is a primary offense, police need no other reason to pull someone over and write a $50 fine – twice the amount of a stop sign violation.
The danger associated with texting and emailing while behind the wheel helped to make it a primary offense, as opposed to a secondary offense, which would require another violation to occur.
According to data released by Gov. Tom Corbett’s office, there were close to 14,000 crashes in Pennsylvania in 2010 where distracted driving played a role, with almost 1,100 of those collisions involving a handheld cellular phone.
Besides Pennsylvania, 38 other states have banned texting while driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In the administration’s first nationally-representative telephone survey on driver distraction released earlier this year, more than 75 percent of drivers reported that they are willing to answer calls on all, most, or some trips.
In addition, “survey respondents acknowledged few driving situations when they would not use the phone or text,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Some texting while driving opponents have likened this form of distracted driving to driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Horsham Police Lt. Jon Clark said he suspected a driver he cited several weeks ago of driving drunk initially.
“He was going real slow,” Clark said of the motorist who he said was driving 35 miles per hour, while swerving, in a 45 miles per hour section of Horsham Road. “I got up next to him … I could see him looking down on his phone.”
To date, Clark said Horsham police have written “less than a dozen” texting while driving citations, which with court costs included, come to $136. Besides steep fines, Clark said drivers could pay with serious injuries, or with their lives.
“The legislators are recognizing that this is a pretty serious offense,” Clark said. “Texting is probably the most dangerous because you’re constantly looking down. You look down for just a couple seconds … and traveled 50 yards and not had control of your car.”
While Horsham and Hatboro law enforcement officials said they were not aware of any traffic fatalities resulting from texting while driving, Clark said police believe a crash on Horsham and Cedar Hill roads which resulted in “significant injuries” stemmed from a driver using a cell phone to either make a call or to text prior to slamming into the car in front of her.
In Texas, 21-year-old Chance Bothe who was texting and driving in January, spent six months recuperating from injuries resulting from him driving his truck off the road into a ravine.
"I need to quit texting, because I could die in a car accident,” was one of the final texts Bothe wrote before the crash, according to the Huffington Post.
In New Jersey, a couple injured in a crash involving a texting teen have filed suit against the driver and his girlfriend. According to CBS News, the teen couple exchanged 62 texts the day of the crash in 2009.
Gardner said he’s hopeful that the five-month-old Pennsylvania law has drawn enough attention to keep drivers statewide from texting while behind the wheel.
“Most people are adhering to it,” Gardner said. “It’s one of these things where I think it had the effect of bringing this to light.”