Efforts are underway to pass legislation that makes using an electronic device while driving a primary offense in Ohio. Only drivers under age 18 face this prohibition now. For all others, it is a secondary offense, which means a law enforcement officer must observe another infraction, such as speeding, weaving or tailgating, before pulling someone over.
There are 47,305 reasons to pass a tougher law. That is the number of people killed or injured by a distracted driver on Ohio's streets and highways since 2013.
Plus, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and National Safety Council believe the real numbers are much higher because drivers deny they were using electronic devices when they caused a crash.
Last month, legislation was introduced in the Ohio House to make technology usage while driving a primary offense. That means a law enforcement officer could pull over and ticket someone the officer sees using technology, whether texting, talking on the phone or touching a hands-free unit.
Just like the first time it was proposed, there is opposition. Some legislators ask whether this could lead to profiling of African-American drivers. This question deserves an answer. While I think it is most appropriately addressed in the larger discussion about the fractured relationship between minority communities and law enforcement, I suspect this bill might go nowhere unless proponents can show how the law would be applied fairly.
State Rep. Gayle Manning (R-North Ridgeville) is aware of the proposal as well as concerns about it. “Distracted driving is a major problem in Ohio.” she said. “My hope is that we can find the right balance between protecting all drivers while ensuring we do not over prosecute.”
One possible way to achieve fairness is already used by the state patrol. A plane watches overhead for erratic drivers, capturing the vehicle on video then providing the license plate number and vehicle description to a waiting patrol car.
Locally, Avon passed an ordinance nearly two years ago prohibiting texting while driving. Police Chief Rich Bosley provided a straightforward explanation about why the community pushed ahead. “You're driving a 2,000-pound weapon and your full attention should be on the road,” he said.
Bosley believes odds are high that anyone who drives has seen somebody texting. “It's that prevalent,” he said.
The chief is right and that is why the legislature needs to give this issue its full attention.
Avon police issued about 12 citations last year, and three times as many warnings. None of the drivers contested their citations. Bosley said officers pull a driver over when they see that person texting.
The impetus that revved up the charge for lawmakers to do something resulted, in part, from efforts of Ohio's Distracted Driving Task Force. The group said existing law and penalties are not strong enough to prevent people from driving while distracted. Gov. Mike DeWine is pushing the legislature to act.
What got me started was a news story about a Texas couple whose only child was killed by a guy who lost control of his truck while watching porn on his phone. The police found the phone in the man's hand with the movie still playing. The young man he killed had a college scholarship, so a promising life was wiped out and a couple’s child was taken away forever.
Anyone who thinks this problem doesn't affect them because they never talk or text on their phone while driving is wrong. Look at your car insurance bill. You're paying for someone else's selfishness.
“Each traffic death costs Ohio about $1.7 million and each serious injury $157,000 in monetary losses associated with medical care, emergency services, property damage and lost productivity,” the Distracted Driving Task Force report says.
Tougher laws save lives. States with primary, hands-free laws have seen reductions in traffic deaths. Of 15 states and District of Columbia that enacted these laws before 2018, 12 saw a decrease in traffic fatality rates within two years, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Two states’ laws were too new to measure effectiveness.
It's time, Ohio. There is no good reason for the number 47,305 to go any higher.