New push could toughen texting and driving rules in Ohio

A new push by lawmakers in Ohio could toughen the state’s texting and distracted driving law.

Bills in both the Ohio House and Senate are pending to address distracted driving, which is anything that takes a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.

House Bill 88, would amend the current law and make texting while driving subject to primary enforcement for adults.

Currently texting and driving is banned. But it’s only a secondary offense for adults, meaning police must first stop a driver for another offense, such as speeding. Texting and driving is already a primary offense for drivers younger than 18.

State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, frequently travels back and forth from Springfield to Columbus and said it’s shocking how many distracted drivers are on the roadways. In general, keeping distracted drivers off the road is a worthwhile goal, he said.

At the same time however, Koehler cautioned it’s important to ensure the bill’s language wouldn’t have unintended consequences.

“Almost everybody has a GPS on their phone or in their car, and I would hate to think you would have to pull over to make an adjustment on those,” he said. “At the same time that’s not much different than texting so it’s a very hard law to write legislation and fix it without causing an issue that would make everyone break the law every time they touch their GPS.”

House Bill 88 would also prohibit use of wireless devices in a school zone during hours children are present and in construction zones.

Senate Bill 146, pending in the Ohio House, would tack on an additional $100 fine to a number of traffic offenses while driving distracted.

House Bill 86, would establish a general offense of distracted driving with a $100 fine for a first offense, then $300. Penalties would double if a fatality results and would be secondary enforcement. It would require a mandatory court appearance and fines would go to fund driver education.

House Bill 86 hasn’t moved in the House in several months, Koehler said.

Another Miami Valley state representative doesn’t believe the laws need to be changed.

“The current law of secondary offense that bans texting while driving is enough,” said State Rep. Niraj Antani, a Republican from Miami Twp. “I don’t think it needs to be a primary offense.”

He said he doesn’t think the bill has the support as written to become law. Antani said he does support the construction and school zone provisions in House Bill 88.

More than 80 percent of drivers cite distraction as a serious problem and a behavior that makes them feel less safe on the road, according to the annual AAA Foundation Traffic Safety Culture Index.

“If you’re driving 55 mph and take your eyes off the road for 4.5 seconds to look at your phone, you’ve already gone the length of a football field,” said Sgt. Vincent Shirey, a spokesman for the Ohio Highway Patrol. “A lot can happen in that amount of time such as deer jumping out in front of you, a car pulling out or the car ahead of you makes a sudden stop.”

In 2015, more than 13,200 drivers in Ohio crashed while being distracted by something in their vehicles, according to Ohio State Highway Patrol statistics.

Of those, 39 drivers were in fatal crashes that resulted in 43 deaths. Another 4,593 drivers were in injury crashes resulting in 6,916 injuries. The number of reported distracted drivers went up 11 percent, according to the state patrol.

Staff Writer John Bedell contributed to this report.

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