Cambria County, Pennsylvania, Assistant District Attorney Heath Long could not prove that a young man was texting when he careened his pickup into another, killing a grandfather and his teenaged granddaughter.
“What we did know is a very short period of time before he called 911, he received a text,” Long said, “but we could not show that he read it.”
Long could show that the defendant texted earlier during his drive from a few miles down the road, and had crossed the center line before the crash. Prosecutors accepted a plea deal for two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one of texting while driving.
Pennsylvania’s anti-texting law has yielded thousands of citations in almost four years since it was enacted, but crashes involving cellphones numbered 922 and claimed 10 lives in 2014, PennDOT statistics show — far fewer than motorcycle crashes that killed 186 people, but roughly the same number of deaths as crashes involving deer.
About 1.2 million car crashes in 2013 involved drivers talking on phones, according to the National Safety Council, and at least 341,000 involved text messaging.
Long, who has spent about two decades prosecuting car crash cases, said distracted driving cases are among the most difficult to prove. Phone records take months, even years, to produce, he said.
Police can have difficulty in catching drivers texting, and the Pennsylvania law does not encompass the myriad uses of modern phones such as using GPS, taking a selfie or talking on the phone.
“Sometimes, it’s just an accident, and sometimes, an accident’s a criminal offense,” Long said. “It’s hard for someone who has just lost a loved one to know the difference. Sometimes it’s hard for us to determine the difference.”
Mt. Lebanon police Lt. Duane Fisher has spent more than two decades in emergency services and law enforcement. He suspects distracted driving is as much of a safety hazard as drunken driving.
“People are sending messages, playing games, looking up stuff, reading their email,” Fisher said. “It’s just like driving around with a laptop computer. People wouldn’t do that, so why would people do that on your cellphone?”
Police in Western Pennsylvania are challenged in trailing a suspected texting driver because of quick changes in municipal boundaries on main roads, Fisher said. And someone holding a phone is not necessarily texting, which is what the law spells out as a crime.
“You have to watch a vehicle for a little bit in order to determine whether or not they’re committing an infraction,” he said. “Use it as a GPS or to access a phone call — those are allowable exceptions.”
Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Adam Reed said that although it’s difficult to quantify the extent to which the anti-texting law has been a deterrent, state police issued 387 texting-while-driving citations in 2015, up from 268 in the year before.
“Our troopers are getting better at looking for it, knowing the indicators of a driver that is, maybe, texting and driving at the same time,” Reed said.
Fisher said it would be easier to police distracted drivers if the state banned hand-held cellphone use. Fourteen states have such a ban, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
“Nobody really thinks about using their cellphones as being that criminal,” Fisher said. “That’s a paradigm we have to change.”
Changes to driving laws don’t come easily, said state Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County, who spearheaded efforts to ban texting five years ago.
Before that, she spent eight years muscling through a package of teen driving safety laws. One safety measure limited the number of passengers — a scientifically proven distraction, Watson said — who can accompany a driver younger than 18.
She expects phone laws to take a similar path over time.
“The reason teen driving finally passed is we got to a point where people understood the scientific premise,” she said. “They were willing to vote for it.”
A mobile device can cause visual, manual and cognitive distraction, said Amelia Acker, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Systems. She has researched the “phantom ring,” or “phantom buzz” phenomena, when people reach for their phones, thinking they heard a notification.
“You’re anticipating a text; you’re anticipating responding,” Acker said. “All of that affects our vision and our reactions to actually driving.”
Even hands-free technologies can be distracting. A study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety examining in-vehicle information systems used for phone calls and music found drivers’ skills were impaired for 27 seconds after completing tasks.
PennDOT data show 59 crashes occurred in Pennsylvania because of hands-free devices in 2014, resulting in one death and 46 injuries.
Although Watson believes the anti-texting law has played a role in reducing crashes, she sees plenty of texting drivers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike during her trek to and from Harrisburg.
“I’m thinking, `Come on, folks. We’re doing 70 miles per hour. Are you crazy?’ ” she said.
AAA has found that 78 percent of drivers say distracted driving is a serious threat and 84 percent say it’s unacceptable. Still 36.1 percent admitted to reading a text or email while driving 30 days before the survey.
“We say it’s a `Do as I say, not as I do’ attitude that prevails,” said Theresa Podguski, director of legislative affairs with AAA East Central.
The National Safety Council says cellphone-related crashes are under-reported because many cannot be proved.
Some drivers may consider the penalty — fees and fines totaling $153.50 in Pennsylvania — small enough to be worth the risk. Others think they might not get caught.
Still, Podguksi said, AAA aims to combat distracted driving by making it a priority in education campaigns, especially among teenagers.
Shannon Botts, 31, of Highland Park does not know if the teen driver who crashed head-on into her and her husband’s SUV five springs ago was texting. Her husband saw the driver looking down — and honked and screamed out the open windows in an attempt to get the boy’s attention.
Botts was seven months pregnant and went into labor two days later. Her daughter Emerson, 4, spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“It was never 100 percent that the other driver was using his cellphone, but the police said it was very likely,” Botts said. “The kid didn’t even try to brake or swerve. … That’s what led them to assume he was texting.”
Botts works at Edgar Snyder and Associates law firm, where she and her colleagues hear tragic crash stories daily. She keeps her phone stored while driving. Emerson, “a little spitfire,” tells other people in cars to put away their phones.
“We always say, `Accidents happen,’ that they’re something you can’t avoid,” Botts said. “But things like this — texting and driving, drinking and driving — those are avoidable.”
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