COLUMBUS, Ohio — Legislation is finally moving forward at the Ohio statehouse that would crack down on distracted driving. The Ohio House overwhelmingly passed legislation Wednesday that would make using an electronic device while driving a primary offense, meaning law enforcement can stop and cite drivers solely for that offense.
Long considered a priority for Gov. Mike DeWine, the proposed expansion of the state’s distracted driving laws has largely stalled in Columbus up until the past week. The House Criminal Justice Committee passed the legislation, House Bill 283, on Tuesday, and the full chamber passed it on Wednesday afternoon in a 77-11 vote. The bill moves on to the Ohio Senate and must be passed by both chambers and signed by Gov. DeWine by the end of the year, or the legislative process would have to begin anew.
Currently, texting and driving is illegal under state law, but it is not considered a primary offense. In order for a law enforcement officer to cite a driver for distracted driving, the officer must also issue a citation for a separate offense, whether it be speeding or running a stop sign. That changes under HB 283, which allows law enforcement to initiate a traffic stop — and later cite a driver — solely for distracted driving.
“People do it all the time on the highway. I’ll see somebody driving crazy in a lane next to me or something and when I go to pass them, I’ll see that they are literally staring at their phone. It’s crazy,” said driver Dex Biggin. “People, I think, get too comfortable with doing that kind of stuff. Just because you do it 10 times and you’re fine doesn’t mean that the 11th time something isn’t going to happen. I think people get too comfortable.”
HB 283 carves out a number of exceptions, including emergencies; so-called ‘non-moving situations’; using speaker phone and other functions like changing a song provided that the driver isn’t holding the device.
Some lawmakers said Wednesday that the exceptions, many of which came by way of amendments to the bill, conflict with the spirit of the legislation.
Additionally, several Northeast Ohio lawmakers criticized the legislation for failing to include provisions related to data collection to ensure that the law isn’t disproportionately applied to drivers of certain races, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. Rep. Juanita Brent (D-Cleveland) said the legislation should make continued implicit bias training a requirement for law enforcement officers.
“We can walk and chew at the same time. We can deal with text messaging and making sure that people get stopped for it as a primary offense and also say, ‘let's add on implicit bias training.’ That is not hard to do,” Brent said.
The legislation has largely remained stagnant at the statehouse since it was first introduced — and first called for by Gov. DeWine in February 2020. That year, a total of 29 people were killed in distracted driving crashes and another 2,000 were injured statewide.
Since 2017, there have been nearly 73,000 distracted driving crashes in Ohio and more than 2,100 crashes that resulted in serious injury or death.
There have been 28 fatal distracted driving crashes so far this year.