DeWine signs distracted driving law limiting use of electronic devices

Other law changes include decriminalizing fentanyl test strips, making ‘swatting’ a felony



Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill Tuesday morning limiting the use of electronic devices while driving that supporters hope will decrease distracted driving crashes and fatalities.

The new law makes most cases of holding a cellphone or similar device while driving a primary offense, meaning law enforcement officers can stop motorists for it without any other reason.

“Right now, too many people are willing to risk their lives while behind the wheel to get a look at their phones,” DeWine said. “My hope is that this legislation will prompt a cultural shift around distracted driving that normalizes the fact that distracted driving is dangerous, irresponsible, and just as deadly as driving drunk.”

Ohio State Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Charles Jones said Tuesday the law will “undoubtedly change and enhance driving behaviors” and “save countless lives.”

Every time a driver takes their focus off the road, even for a few seconds, they put their life and others’ in danger, he added.

As of Dec. 26, there were 31 fatal distracted driving crashes in Ohio last year and 260 that involved serious injuries, according to the OSHP’s distracted driving dashboard. Interstate 75 had the most distracted driving-related crashes in Ohio last year with 165. Interstate 71 was second with 139.

A Dayton Daily News investigation in December found 2022 was on track to become the deadliest in recent years for traffic fatalities and distracted driving in Ohio. Montgomery and its seven surrounding counties had at least 32,752 traffic crashes resulting in 172 deaths, of which 1,541 were blamed on distracted driving — as were eight of the deaths, according to Ohio Department of Public Safety statistics.

“It is our hope through this legislation that we can stop (distracted drivers) before they crash and injure themselves and others,” Jones said.

Under the law, police must observe drivers using a handheld electronic device to pull them over. They cannot search devices for evidence of recent use without a warrant or if the driver allows them to.

The new law will go into effect in 90 days. For the law’s first six months, offenders will get off with warnings while the state conducts a massive public education campaign.

After that, police will be able to issue citations. A first offense will include penalties of up to $150 and two points on the person’s license unless they complete a distracted driving safety course. Repeat offenders can face more serious penalties.

Other law changes

The legislation DeWine signed Tuesday, which received bipartisan support in the House and Senate, makes a host of other changes to Ohio law.

It will let inmates earn more time off prison sentences and make it easier to keep some criminal records out of the public eye. It will also decriminalize fentanyl test strips, make strangulation a separate offense, outlaw fertility fraud by doctors, and mandate age-appropriate education about child sexual abuse prevention in schools, among other changes.

State lawmakers also included a provision to throw out the statute of limitations for attempted aggravated murder. The bill’s sponsor has said that change is in response to a recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling that the timeline for charging defendants with this crime runs out six years after it was committed.

DeWine also has signed a separate bill that creates the felony offense of swatting — when someone knowingly reports a false emergency that prompts response by law enforcement, such as a kidnapping, school shooting or other violent crimes.

Staff writer Jim Gaines and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

New Ohio distracted driving law

What is allowed, banned and exempt?

- Holding a cellphone to your ear is allowed, but staring at a handheld phone is not.

- Drivers are allowed “one (finger) swipe” on a screen, such as answering a call.

- Using an online map or navigation device is fine so long as it’s mounted on the dash or on the console — not held in the hand.

- Police, other first responders and utility workers are exempt.

- So are two-way radios used by the Amateur Radio Service, AKA “ham radio.”

What can and can’t police do?

- Police can stop drivers just for using a handheld electronic device.

- But they have to actually see the driver using it.

- Officers can’t search an electronic device for evidence of recent use unless they have a warrant, or the driver allows them to do so.

- Police agencies will have to track and report racial data on everyone they stop for a distracted-driving violation.

How will people know?

- Drivers will have to sign a statement on the new law when they get or renew their licenses.

- Driver education classes and questions on license exams will cover the standards.

- Signs on some highways and at the state line will warn drivers of the new law.

- The state plans to conduct a public information campaign before the law goes into full force.

- For the law’s first six months in effect, police can only give written warnings to violators, allowing time for people to learn and adjust to the new rules.

About the Author