CLEVELAND — In the waning days of the legislative session, the Ohio General Assembly moved ahead with a stronger set of laws designed to curb distracted driving crashes across the state. The legislation, which has been sent to Gov. Mike DeWine for signature, would classify distracted driving as a primary offense, meaning law enforcement officers can stop and cite drivers solely for distracted driving violations.
Currently, distracted driving is only a secondary offense and it must be accompanied by another violation in order for a driver to be cited. The enhanced distracted driving regulations have long been a priority of Gov. DeWine, who originally pushed for stiffer laws in February 2020. However, those legislative requests would soon be pre-empted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, a total of 29 people were killed in distracted driving crashes and another 2,000 were injured.
According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, there were 91,000 distracted driving crashes from 2013 to 2019, resulting in more than 47,000 injuries and 305 deaths.
The stronger distracted driving regulations were rolled into a voluminous omnibus bill, which totaled 975 pages. Lawmakers passed the bill on Thursday during its lame duck session.
Despite only having their driver’s licenses for a few years, Cleveland State University sophomores Hanah Ferguson and Natalie Wutz both know the dangers associated with distracted driving. Both students said they were in favor of the stronger laws, although the two questioned how enforceable they will be, if signed into law.
“[Texting and driving] is kind of normalized but obviously I don’t think it should be,” Ferguson said. “I know some people that have gotten into car crashes because of it. I think there should be more laws to get rid of it but I don’t really know how you could [enforce it]. People would just put their phone down and pretend they weren’t.”
Wutz said that although the temptation to check your phone while driving always exists, she always puts her phone on ‘do not disturb’ in order to prevent it.
“[Distracted driving] causes a lot of accidents. I do think it is normalized but it’s not good,” Wutz said.
Although the proposed legislation includes stronger restrictions, there are notable exceptions to the distracting driving law. Those exceptions include allowing drivers to momentarily check their phones while stopped at a red light; allowing drivers to have their phone to their ear while driving; allowing drivers to use their phone momentarily for navigational purposes; allowing drivers to use speaker phone while driving, as well as allowing drivers to use their phone in the event of an emergency.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ohio State Highway Patrol said the law enforcement agency supports the measure.
“The Patrol supports legislation that makes Ohio’s roadways safer by reducing traffic-related fatalities and dangerous driving behaviors. One major change associated with HB 283 is the fact that distracted driving will become a primary traffic violation. This bill also eliminates any penalties for a first offense by allowing the driver to take a free online distracted driving course and will also require law enforcement agencies to report citation information to the Ohio Attorney General, which will show distracted driving trends on our roadways.”