COLUMBUS — Ohio teens could not use their cellphones, iPads or other electronic devices while driving unless there’s an emergency under a bill the state Senate is expected to vote on Thursday.
A Senate transportation committee on Wednesday added the restrictions on teens in a series of changes they made to the measure that also included loosening a proposed statewide texting ban on adult drivers.
The legislation cleared the panel on a 6-3 vote, with two Democrats and one Republican voting against it.
State Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, said she opposed the bill because she was concerned that it would open the door to future infringements on personal freedom.
“What’s next?” she said. “We can’t put on our lipstick? We can’t eat french fries? We can’t change the radio? We can’t talk to the person next to us?”
Texting while driving is already prohibited in 37 states, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. An additional six states prohibit text messaging by new drivers. Other states also ban novice drivers from using cellphones.
Ohio’s bill would make texting behind the wheel a minor misdemeanor, with possible fines of $150. The measure wouldn’t trump city ordinances on texting or cellphone use that might be tougher.
Revisions agreed to by the state Senate committee on Wednesday would make texting with handheld devices a secondary offense for adults. That means drivers could be ticketed for typing emails or instant messages only if they were pulled over for another offense, such as running a red light.
That’s a weaker statewide texting ban than the version that the House overwhelmingly passed in June. The House-passed bill had made texting a primary offense, but it didn’t include the crackdown on teen drivers.
The switch to the secondary offense comes amid concerns in the Senate about how the law would be enforced by authorities. Senators have been wrangling with questions over enforcement since the bill stalled last fall.
State Sen. Tom Patton, the committee’s chairman, acknowledged there would be enforcement challenges.
“The people that are doing texting while driving now are committing what I would call an ill-conceived act,” said Patton, a Strongsville Republican. “It’s ill-conceived, but it’s still legal.”
But much like the state’s seatbelt law, Patton said he hopes that people will instinctively follow the rules even if they can’t be initially be pulled over for breaking them.
The bill would make texting or using an electronic device while driving a primary offense for those under age 18. Minors could be fined $150 for the first offense and have their license suspended for 60 days. Repeat offenders could face a $300 fine and get their license taken away for a year.
Senators tweaked the bill to make sure minors could have hands-free GPS navigation devices. Teens could have the electronic devices in the car, but couldn’t use them unless the vehicle was stopped and off the roadway.
Senate President Tom Niehaus, a New Richmond Republican, has questioned how police could tell the difference between someone who is touching a cellphone and texting. He’s also told reporters the bill has the potential to encourage drivers to text on their laps, looking straight down, rather than up near their steering wheel.
Jay McDonald, president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, said his organization would have preferred that texting be a primary offense because he said it would have been easier to enforce.
“It’s an after-the-fact kind of enforcement,” McDonald said of the Senate changes. He said it would force law enforcement to seek search warrants in cases where there have been bad crashes to see if the driver was texting.
“For a minor misdemeanor, that’s a lot of extra hoops,” he said.
Philip Ludwig, a father from Pickerington, told the committee that they should focus on preventing the behavior and not on how the law would be carried out.
Ludwig said his 16-year-old son Dalton died in 2010 after a man lost control of his vehicle and struck the driver’s education car his son occupied.
“I relive that evening every day, asking the same questions as the other victims,” Ludwig said in his testimony. “Why? Why Dalton? Why was the man texting? Why did he lose control? And now today, why doesn’t Ohio have a law against this dangerous activity?”