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Texting and driving citations vary widely in York County
More than 250 tickets have been issued for the offense, but municipalities take different approaches.
In the three-plus years since it became illegal to text while driving, York County law enforcement has given out more than 250 tickets for doing so. But the citations aren't spread evenly around the county — local police departments apparently have taken widely differing approaches to enforcement, according to a York Dispatch data analysis.
The North Hopewell Township Police Department, covering the municipality's 2,700-and-change population, with some help from state police, has issued more than six times as many texting-while-driving tickets — 19 — as it has full-time officers — three, including the chief.
Compare that to York City, where about 100 officers cover close to 45,000 people and have issued only four such tickets.
Dangerous: Pennsylvania state law made texting while driving illegal starting in March 2012, and local law enforcement agencies say cracking down on that kind of behavior is a priority. It's generally agreed upon to be very dangerous: Center for Traffic Safety director Wayne Harper says it's almost on par with drunken driving in that regard.
"You're 23 times more likely to be in a crash while texting and driving than while you're not," said Harper, whose York-based office also covers Adams, Lancaster and Lebanon counties. "Twenty-three times is a lot."
Sending a text, even a quick one, can take your eyes off the road for as much as five seconds at a time, he said.
"Five seconds at 55 mph is the length of a football field," Harper said. "A lot of things happen in 100 yards."
Disparity: And police agree with him. Ranking officers from the half-dozen York County police departments The York Dispatch talked to all said distracted driving was both dangerous and an enforcement priority.
But according to data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts covering the time period from March 8, 2012, when the law went into effect, through the end of this June, there's a wide disparity in the amount of tickets the various departments issue.
The York City-North Hopewell Township difference is a pretty striking one; after all, the township's department doesn't even cover the area around the clock — state police chip in a significant amount of hours of coverage.
North Hopewell Police Chief Larry Bailets said one of the main focuses of his department is preventing the kind of driving that leads to crashes.
"We have our fair share of motor-vehicle accidents here," Bailets said. Therefore, he said, it's important for his department to put extra focus on cracking down on distracted driving, which is second only to speeding as a cause of crashes.
Police in North Hopewell have only reported their crime statistics to the state's Uniform Crime Reporting Unit once in the five years leading up to 2013, the most recent year for which there is statewide data; the year they did so, they only reported eight type-one crimes, while York City deals with close to 2,000 a year, according to data.
York City Police Chief Wes Kahley could not be reached for comment.
Regional departments: But what also is striking is the disparity in the number of tickets issued by two of York County's largest regional departments: Northern York County Regional Police and York Area Regional Police. Northern Regional, which polices almost 70,000 people in a large swath of land to the north and west of the city, has issued 91 tickets, while York Area, which last year covered about 60,000 people southeast of the city, has issued seven tickets.
Mark Bentzel, chief of Northern York County Regional Police, said both enforcement and education about distracted driving are focuses of the department. Plenty of major roads run through the area the department covers, including routes 30 and 74, as well as the Susquehanna Trail, and he said most of the tickets they issue are on those main roads.
York Area Regional Police Sgt. Peter Montgomery said cracking down on distracted driving is a focus of his department also. But the data from the AOPC shows York Area Regional officers have only issued .11 tickets per thousand people the department covers, a rate among the lowest in the county.
Montgomery says a big reason for the low number of tickets is how hard it is to get texting-while-driving citations to stick.
"You can write as many as you want," but it doesn't really have much of an effect unless they'll hold up in court, the sergeant said.
But those worries aren't backed up by the AOPC data. Of the 267 York County tickets for which the office provided data about how the citations were resolved, only 17 were challenged and just one was dismissed, with one other resulting in the decision that the alleged texter was instead guilty of a lesser offense. All seven of York Area Regional's did stick. Northern Regional has withdrawn five of its 91 tickets.
"Should we write more citations? We probably will" as the law gets tighter, as he thinks it both should and will, Montgomery said.
— Reach Sean Philip Cotter at email@example.com.