CLEVELAND — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has introduced new provisions in his Executive Budget proposal that would strengthen distracted driving laws.
“Hands-Free Ohio” will make driving while handling any electronic wireless device a primary offense for adult drivers and will increase fines for drivers who habitually use devices while driving. In cases where a driver using a device causes serious injury or death, the penalties will mirror those of drunk driving.
Currently, using a hand-held electronic wireless device for any purpose is a primary offense for drivers under 18, and using a device for text-based communications while driving is a secondary offense for adults.
“The ultimate goal is to make the roadway safer for everyone to travel on, not to write more tickets,” Sgt. Ray Santiago of the Ohio State Highway Patrol said.
This secondary enforcement prohibits law enforcement from stopping an adult driver using a wireless device to write, send, or read text-based communications unless the driver also commits a primary traffic offense, such as running a red light.
Despite traffic being down nearly 50% during the pandemic, troopers say they saw a 10% jump in the number of distracted driving citations issued from 2019 to 2020.
“It can be frustrating, because again, it’s not about enforcement, it’s about changing that behavior,” said Santiago. “So, if I can stop that individual say, ‘look you’re going to cause yourself to get hurt or hurt someone else.’ That’s what we’re trying to be able to do.”
In 2019, the patrol issued 8,564 citations for distracted driving. Despite traffic volume bottoming out in March and April of 2020, they handed out another 9,413 tickets from Jan. 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2020.
New data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol also shows that 2020 was the deadliest year on Ohio's roads in over a decade with 1,236 people killed in traffic crashes. More than 100,000 distracted driving crashes have occurred in Ohio since 2013 resulting in more than 53,000 injuries.
“Getting to where they’re going safely, is the important part. A text message or an email or a selfie, those are all things that can wait,” said Santiago. “It’s better to be available and around to actually do those things than to put you in a situation where you’re not around to do any of that anymore."