Traffic officer wants tougher cell phone law

Story posted April 10, 2012 in News by Emily Cleveland

A new law went into effect March 8 prohibiting the use of text messaging devices for those behind the wheel of a motor vehicle in Pennsylvania. Under the new law, police officers are able to pull over drivers and issue a $50 fine on the sole basis that they were texting.

 Joe Zaffuto, the State College Police traffic officer, has been with the department for 23 1/2 years. He also speaks to driver’s education classes about dangers while driving, including distractions caused by cell phones.

He was interviewed recently by Comm460 student Emily Cleveland. Here are excerpts:


Q. Before the law was put into effect, had you ever pulled anyone over and been sure they were texting?

A. Yes.


Q. Had you seen a lot of accidents caused by texting?

A. I had seen some accidents. I experienced one occasion where a person was texting and almost hit me head-on. I am a traffic officer, so I drive an unmarked police car most of the time, or I drive a motorcycle. She did not know I was a police officer and when I pulled her over, she said, “Oh my gosh are you the person that I almost hit?” So, she knew what she had done. She looked up and she was already in my lane and she swerved back over. Now, at the time, the texting law wasn’t in effect. But, that doesn’t mean she can’t get a citation.


Q. What did you cite her for?

A. Careless driving. There’s a section in the vehicle code that says if anybody does anything in a careless manner or does anything that causes them to drive in a careless manner then they can be cited. It can be texting, trying to read, fiddling with the radio, or doing anything that takes their attention away from their driving.


Q. What is your opinion in comparing the use of texting devices to the use of GPS devices?

A. There are different kinds of GPS devices. There are some that are integrated within the cell phone, there are some that are on the dashboard, and there are some that are integrated within a car. Those are usually programmed or should be programmed before you start your route. Usually it’s just the matter of a touch of a button if you have to do anything like re-route it or change it. I know with mine if I mess up it says “recalculating” and then it does so and I don’t have to do anything with it. I’m not sure why anybody would even have to do anything with a GPS. The texting law doesn’t cover the GPS; however, careless driving does. If you are fiddling or messing with a GPS system and you can’t drive safely, and an officer sees it, you will be charged with careless driving.


Q. Would you be in favor of a law that would restrict access to a GPS device while the vehicle is in motion?

A. The intent of the law is so a driver is not distracted. There is always going to be some type of distraction for drivers. The goal is to limit that distraction to a small amount of time. Most people can look in their rearview mirror for a second to see if there’s anybody there and check their blind spot. Obviously they’re not looking in front of them, but it’s only taking a second. They’re checking for other hazards. You aren’t able to see everywhere so you have to do these things. With a GPS, if you have to program it and you are actually programming it for an address, which takes a lot of time, I would say absolutely that should be illegal. But if it’s just a matter of pushing a button, then no in that aspect I wouldn’t think it should be a law. Common sense needs to be used.


Q. Have you pulled anyone over for texting since the law has been passed?

A. Yes, I am the first officer of the state to issue a citation.


Q. When was that?

A. That was the first day the law took effect, March 8.


Q. Have a lot of citations been issued since the law took effect?

A. There are actually not a lot of citations being issued. It is because the law does not have a lot of teeth. It has a lot of baby teeth, but it doesn’t have very many big teeth. It allows people to drive a motor vehicle and still use a wireless communication device for other things, such as receiving a phone call, or sending a phone call. Unless I am sitting in the passenger seat of the car that the texter is driving, it is pretty hard for me to know whether or not the person is calling a friend. With that being said, we do have ways of checking. We’ll have one officer in an elevated position and another down the road on a motorcycle. If the elevated officer sees a person is using cell phone, the officer on the motorcycle will catch up to that person and look inside the car. If that person is still on the cell phone at that point, I think we would not have a problem with successful prosecution.


Q, Are there any other specific signs that you look for?

A. The most common sign is the person holding the cell phone above the steering wheel and trying to text. Those people are pretty obvious. The second most common one is a driver who is constantly looking down. I had a driver once who was speeding and drove right past me and then past another officer on the interstate here. I couldn’t believe that the person kept speeding. As I caught up to her and pulled her over, I found that she had not seen the two police officers. She didn’t admit to it, but her phone was on her lap and I’m pretty sure she had been texting.


Q. Is there a specific age group more prone to being caught?

A. Yes. I say that because we are the State College Police, we have a majority of young people here. That being said, when I do patrol areas outside State College, because we have jurisdiction there, I do see young people texting. I also see a few older people texting. You have to remember it is a new electronic type interaction and most older people are electronically challenged.


Q. Is there a specific gender that is more prone to being caught?

A. It would be more females. Not that I haven’t cited males. I pulled over a driver who had been on Facebook while driving. He was a male. I have seen more females, though.


Q. Are you more drawn to a specific make or model of a car while looking for violators?

A. No, I haven’t noticed anything. Again, this law has only come into effect recently. But, I have cited people for the careless driving portion of it. Now we’re actually pressing charges for it.


Q. In recent interviews with Penn State students, a few said the law would only cause texters to be discreet, which could potentially lead to more accidents. What are your feelings on this?

A. Because the law, in my opinion, does not have a lot of teeth, there are ways the person could lie. Out of every person I’ve pulled over, nobody has admitted to texting. We do have cameras in our cars so I am able to capture some of what happened prior to pulling them over. They all say that they’re calling or getting a call or something, because they know that they’re allowed to do that. Our legislators passed this law without saying “no cell phone usage at all unless it’s hands-free.” That would be the ultimate goal. I know California passed a law saying no cell phone usage at all and they had a 20 percent decrease in accident fatalities. That is a considerable amount of lives that were saved. Our legislators just don’t get it. If you’re going to drive, drive. If you’re going to text, text. Don’t do both. Especially with young people who aren’t experienced, it’s hard to multitask. I do see more people being discreet and with that I do see more danger. What I mean by that is, we’ve had a lot of people, prior to the texting law, who would put their texting device up by their steering wheel and you would see the texting. It has evolved now that they know they’re not allowed to do this. They will still do it. They will just hold it down so officers cannot see what they’re doing. But what does that do? They’re only seeing down, they’re not seeing the road. By the time they look up, they could be in the other lane of traffic.


Q. Do you think the law will ever evolve and grow those “big teeth?”

A. I don’t know, but if our lawmakers want to save lives, it needs to.


Q. Do you think it was a reasonable law to pass in that it will be effective in decreasing accidents or traffic violations associated with texting?

A. I think it’s a good step. It’s somewhere to start, but they need to realize they need to take this seriously. They need to expand on it and take away all types of cell phone use while driving. I would say with the exception of emergency situations, all phone calls should be made while the person is not driving.