York-area police: Texting-while-driving law hard to enforce


Motorists aren't allowed to write, send or view "text-based communication" such as a text message or email, but they can look at a GPS app.

Or they could check the time.

Or they could dial a number, or select music to play, or check the weather on their phones.

Those are the guidelines under the current law in Pennsylvania, a complex rule local police say they find hard to enforce — thanks to the arbitrary lines it draws.

Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel presides over a department that serves about 70,000 people in a large swath to the north and west of York City. His department is the largest police department in the county and has written the most texting-while-driving citations — but that doesn't mean he thinks the law is well-constructed.

"The expectation of law enforcement to be able to enforce for these types of violations the way these laws are written is absurd," Bentzel said. "We just do the best we can."

Here's the big issue: If police see someone messing around on his or her phone while driving and pull the person over, it's very hard for police to prove the person was sending or reading a message, rather than doing any other of the million-and-one things smartphones can do.

After all, police don't have the legal authority to make the suspected texter hand over the phone in question to see if messages were indeed being sent.

Proof: York Area Regional Police Peter Montgomery said the difficulty in enforcement and in getting citations to stick puts a damper on how many tickets the officers in his department issue.

"If I cannot prove it, then it's very hard for me to pull someone over for it," he said. "We go with what we know — what we can prove."

If it's questionable, York Area Regional officers tend to let it go, he said. And, the sergeant said, it's usually questionable.

"We always want to make sure we win" in court, he said, and officers will err on the side of caution if they're unsure.

Bentzel offered one of his own experiences to illustrate the difficulty. He said one time recently he was driving in an unmarked car and noticed in his rear-view mirror that the guy behind him was "going to town on" his phone. Bentzel let the man pass, and then threw on his siren and pulled him over.

The guy told Bentzel he wasn't texting — he was merely checking the weather. Bentzel said he highly doubted that — he'd been watching the person peck away on his phone for a little while — but he didn't have his citation pad with him, and he saw that the guy was close to home.

So he let him off with an admonition: "Look, you and I both know it is just a dangerous habit. Clearly it can wait."

— Reach Sean Philip Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com.