AVON - Amy Fletcher looked down at her phone while she was turning from Detroit Road onto Center Road. A police officer saw her too.
The 41-year-old Lorain resident was the first person cited for texting while driving in Avon. But since police issued that citation on July 28, 2018, they have issued only eight more.
Officers have issued just two this year, and none since April 7, according to the Avon Police Department.
Avon City Councilman Brian Fischer, who was instrumental in getting the law passed, said he was surprised to learn that only nine people have been cited.
"I think I could see nine people texting on my way to the meeting," Fischer said. "The citations definitely need to be stepped up. We can give police the tools to enforce laws, but the law needs to be stepped up and made a little stricter."
City Council adopted a law in May 2018 that made texting while driving a misdemeanor. The city’s Targeting Texting Law took effect June 1, 2018. Signs went up around the city warning drivers not to text and police gave drivers nearly a two-month education period when they issued warnings.
“We passed the law to give police the tools to go out and enforce what we saw as a problem that could be a danger to the drivers themselves and others,” said Fischer, a retired Cleveland police officer and certified driving instructor. “It makes me wonder what police are doing out there. Are they enforcing the law or just warning people when they catch them?
Fischer said that it “drives me crazy” to see motorists either texting or talking on their phone.
“I’m all for an all-distracted-driving law because I know from first-hand experience what can happen in a split second,” he said. “One time I was watching a girl driving from Nagel Road to State Route 83 texting on her phone, and she did not look up for more than a couple seconds in that distance. She’s lucky she didn’t cause a wreck.”
Avon Police Chief Richard Bosley said the number of texting citations issued is low because it is a challenge to catch someone in the act (and get a conviction) unless the officer witnesses it.
"The law should have tighter restrictions,” Bosley said. “Oftentimes, a person won't admit to texting, or when asked if they were using their phone, they'll just say no. If there's not matching statements from interviews taken during an accident, it's hard to move forward with a distracted-driving citation. Independent witnesses sometimes help, but it's also sometimes hard for someone else driving down the road to see what's going on in the car driving by them unless they're stopped at a light."
A driver caught texting can be charged with a misdemeanor resulting in a fine of up to $150, two points on their license and $75 in fees from Avon Mayor's Court. If offenders don't pay the fine and court costs within a certain amount of time, the court can suspend their driver's license and issue a bench warrant for their arrest, said Magistrate Thomas Stringer.
"We didn't put the law in place to make money or generate revenue," Bosley said. "We did it to educate the public and change people’s behavior. It's up to the discretion of our officers whether to issue a warning or citation.”
Fischer pushed for the no-texting law to be a primary offense, which it is, but he also had wanted the law to cover all distracted driving.
Meanwhile, police have issued 11 citations for other distracted-driving offenses since the no-texting law went into effect — with six of those causing wrecks, according to Avon police and the Ohio State Highway Patrol. The city reports all its accidents to the patrol.
The reasoning behind the no-texting law is clear: Distracted driving causes, at best, fender-benders. At worst, it’s a killer. Distracted driving claimed 3,166 lives in 2017,
according to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Distracted driving is any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system — anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.
Texting, according to the NHTSA, is the “most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that's like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”
Talking on the phone is not against the law in Avon, but drivers were slow to look up and proceed with the rest of the traffic when the light turned green on the morning West Life monitored them.
"When you're sitting at a traffic light that turns green and nobody moves, it's usually because someone is up there doing something on their phone," Bosley said. "Our traffic lights are timed for at least 10 to 12 cars to go through it, but when only two or three cars are making it through the light during a cycle time, there's a problem."
The morning of Aug. 1, a West Life reporter spent an hour at each of Avon’s two busiest intersections, State Route 83 and Detroit Road, and Nagel and Detroit roads.
Whether stopped at a traffic light or whipping the car around the corner with one hand on the steering wheel, drivers of about every fourth or fifth car were holding a phone up to their ear, talking or looking down in their lap for extended periods of time.
That was the case for a woman driving a van with a child in the passenger seat, the driver of a large dump truck at Nagel and Detroit, a police officer at Detroit and State Route 83 and a man driving a pickup truck south on Nagel — a road crowded with construction and traffic congestion.
With students returning to school this month, drivers have more reason to keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, not on their phones, Bosley said.
"When someone is sitting in their car doing something on their phone, it seriously impedes the flow of traffic and causes congestion," he said. "From another standpoint, it causes danger and could cause harm to others on the road.
"We applaud people for their ability to multitask, but a vehicle is not the place to do it," he said.
Avon Law Director John Gasior believes Avon's no-texting law is a good start.
"I just don't know if it's changed anything," he said. "If you have to buckle up and put a seat belt on to drive, that means you're already doing a serious thing and you should pay more attention. Anything can happen, and when it does, it can change someone's life forever."
There are also driving laws regarding time and attention while behind the wheel (like putting information into your GPS while driving), but Gasior believes that like the city's no-texting law, most people don't know they exist.
"Maybe the answer is change the technology on a vehicle so it stops or won't let people continue to drive it if they're doing something else than driving it,” Gasior said. “If police aren't issuing a citation when people are caught texting while driving, but given a stern warning, it hopefully gets people to start changing their behavior. It should be both hands on the wheel."
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