Ruby T. Umberger
COLUMBUS — Ohio drivers would be banned from texting, and teens couldn’t use their cellphones, iPads or other electronics behind the wheel under a bill that the Ohio Senate passed on Thursday.
Some state senators argued the legislation chips away at personal freedom, while others said it doesn’t go far enough to target distracted driving.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, who opposed the measure, freely admitted: “I make it a practice never to vote for a law that I might be guilty of.”
The Senate passed the measure on a 25-8 vote. The House overwhelmingly approved an earlier version of the bill, and representatives would have to agree to the Senate’s changes.
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.
Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, said he also opposed the measure because it could create a “stacking” of offenses for drivers in which they could get cited more than once for violating both state law and city ordinances.
The bill would make texting with hand-held 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 passed on an 88-10 vote in June. The House had made texting a primary offense, but its version didn’t include the crackdown on teen drivers.
State Sen. Tom Patton, a Strongsville Republican, said much like the state’s seatbelt law, he hopes that people will instinctively follow the rules even if they can’t be initially be pulled over for breaking them.
“Will we stop it? No. Will we reduce it? Yes. Because we have seen that happen before,” Patton told his colleagues.
The switch to the secondary offense came amid concerns in the Senate about how the law would be enforced by authorities. Senators had wrangled with concerns about enforcement since the bill stalled in their chamber last fall.
The Ohio Fraternal Order of Police supports the bill. However, the group’s president has said the organization would have preferred that texting be a primary offense because it would have been easier to enforce.
The bill is tougher on new drivers. Minors could have hands-free GPS navigation devices, but they couldn’t use other electronic devices unless an emergency arises, or the vehicle was stopped and off the roadway.
The measure 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.
State Sen. Nina Turner, a Cleveland Democrat, said the bill had too many loopholes and exemptions that would make enforcement challenging. Plus, she said, if lawmakers were serious about reducing distracted driving, then they wouldn’t “play around the edges” in the bill.
“An adult could still surf the web, check the weather, watch a movie, enter an address or even watch a baseball game on their phone or their tablet,” Turner said.
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