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Ohio eyes distracted driving bill

Proposal would increase texting and driving penalties

By MARC KOVAC GateHouse statehouse bureau Published: May 2, 2017 12:52 PM
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COLUMBUS -- Hang around the Statehouse long enough and you're bound to run into Sharon Montgomery.

For the past 15 years or so, the suburban Columbus woman has been making regular trips to Capitol Square, meeting with lawmakers and testifying about the dangers of distracted driving.

She's appeared before legislative committees dozens of times, recounting how another driver using his phone caused a three-car accident in 2000. After six months in intensive care, Montgomery's husband died, and another driver was left permanently disabled.

And the perpetrator?

"The offender was charged with assured clear distance and mailed in his $75 fine," Montgomery told the House's Transportation and Public Safety Committee late last month.

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Montgomery recounts the accident as she pushes for stiffer penalties and further crackdowns on distracted driving. Among other changes, she'd like to see a change in state law to allow officers to stop drivers who are focused on their phones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel.

"There's nothing that you have to say that's important enough to risk your life [or] somebody else's life," Montgomery said.

While texting and driving is technically illegal in Ohio, the infraction is categorized as a secondary offense for adults, meaning officers can issue citations only if they catch drivers breaking other traffic laws.

State law prohibits teens (drivers younger than 18) from using any type of handheld electronic wireless communications device while driving. Those caught doing so face fines, plus a 60-day license suspension for a first offense and one-year suspension for subsequent offenses.

Since early 2013, when the texting law took effect, more than 1,600 people have been cited by the Ohio Highway Patrol for texting or using electronic devices while driving, according to statistics compiled by troopers.

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Since 2015, 20 adults in Summit County and three teens in Portage County have been cited.

The numbers represent only drivers cited for breaking the texting or electronic devices laws and do not account for final convictions. They also cover enforcement activities on state highways, interstates and other areas covered by the Patrol and not citations issued by local law enforcement.

For perspective, the patrol had more than 1.4 million contacts with motorists last year alone, issuing 357,000-plus speeding tickets and 115,541 seatbelt citations in the process.

Lawmakers are considering new legislation that would increase penalties for drivers who are texting or are otherwise distracted while behind the wheel and break other traffic laws.

HB 95 would enable officers to cite perpetrators for "distracted driving" if it's part of other traffic offenses. The enhanced penalty would be similar to what's in place for people caught speeding in construction zones.

And with good reason: Last year, nearly 14,000 drivers in Ohio crashed while being distracted by something in their vehicles, whether other people or electronic devices, Ohio State Highway Patrol Staff Lt. Ed Mejia said in testimony last month to the House's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

More than two dozen of those drivers were killed as a result, and such accidents caused nearly 7,300 injuries, according to Mejia. The number of distracted driver reports was up about 5 percent from the previous year and 11 percent from 2014-15.

But HB 95 stops short of making texting while driving a primary offense. There is not legislative support for that move, yet, said Rep. Jim Hughes (R-Columbus), a primary co-sponsor of the measure.

Part of the problem is proving adults were texting behind the wheel and not just dialing their phones to talk to someone, he said.

Montgomery said she has heard from lawmakers and opponents of making texting a primary offense that the move could lead to profiling of drivers by law enforcement or is another step toward the oft-mentioned "nanny state," with government attempting to exert too much control over residents' actions.

 


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