State texting ban focuses on younger driversWritten by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
Ohio lawmakers and police officers aren’t LOL-ing about texting and driving, especially when it comes to younger drivers. The state texting/driving ban, featuring harsher rules for those younger than 18, went into effect Aug. 31. The City of Toledo has had a ban since 2010.
However, the bans differ and it is up to police whether to charge drivers under the state or city code.
“Both laws are on the books so the officer has the option to cite under whichever code the officer feels is appropriate,” said Toledo Police Sgt. Joe Heffernan, adding that most officers are inclined to charge under city code. The city fine is $130. The state fines are up to $150 for adults and up to $300 for those younger than 18.
No officers will enforce the statewide ban during the six-month warning period, which began Aug. 31. After six months, officers can charge any driver younger than 18 for using any electronic wireless communication device outside of the ban’s exemptions. Texting and driving will be considered a primary offense, meaning the officer needs no other reason to pull the teen driver over. Talking on a cellphone is also included in the ban for the teens.
For drivers older than 18, the ban prohibits driving while using devices to write or read a text-based communication. However, texting while driving is a secondary offense for adults — meaning officers need another reason to pull texters over.
The Fremont-area state Rep. Rex Damschroder, who sponsored the bill that led to the ban, said he originally intended texting and driving to be a primary offense for everyone.
“My full intentions are to go back and revisit [the ban] in the next general assembly,” Damschroder said. A 16-year-old was texting and driving in Damschroder’s district when she crossed the centerline and killed a motorcyclist, he said.
There are also several exceptions to the state ban. Drivers younger than 18 can use their cellphones for emergency purposes and when their vehicle is in a stationary position and outside of the travel lane. Young drivers can also use navigation devices so long as they are hands-free or voice-operated and not programmed while driving.
There are 10 exemptions for adults, including using devices for navigating and hands-free texting. Adult drivers can also use their devices for emergencies and when their vehicle is in a stationary position and outside of the travel lane. They are also permitted to enter a name or phone number to make a call and to receive messages or navigation alerts regarding safety, emergency traffic, weather and the vehicle’s operation.
In Toledo, the city ban enables officers to pull over anyone they see texting as a primary offense. However, in 2011, Heffernan estimated there were about four citations for texting and just one as of April 2012.
That may be because the ban has encouraged drivers to put down their phones, Heffernan said.
“One of the main values of the ban is the awareness part of the law, to get people thinking, ‘Wow, I used to do this, but it’s against the law now,’” he said.
Officers are also more likely to write citations for something other than texting. For instance, if a driver is texting and rear-ends someone, the officer would write a ticket for “assured clear distance.” The texting is also usually done by the time the citation occurs.
Joe McNamara, City Council president, said the lack of citations could be because the police are focused on other things and lacking in manpower.
“You enforce the dangerous things more vigorously than traffic issues,” he said, adding however, “It’s still a danger; it’s still a problem.”
Councilwoman Lindsay Webb voted against the ban in late 2009.
“There was a reason I voted no, because I thought the enforcement was sort of difficult,” she said, adding that the different city borders and laws could have made things tough.
Webb said at the time that she felt the issue needed to be addressed on a statewide basis. Now that it has been, “Hopefully, we’ll raise a new crop of drivers who don’t text and drive,” she said.
Drivers between 16 and 20 are traditionally the leading group in terms of fatal traffic accidents, said Lt. Anne Ralston of the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP).
“Those are the most dangerous years without texting, but to throw texting in with a beginning driver, it’s just a real dangerous combination,” Damschroder said.
When Damschroder started his term, “I was kind of surprised to learn Ohio didn’t have a ban against [texting],” he said. “There is no way you can safely drive your car and take your eyes off the road and text. You just can’t do it.” Ohio is the 39th state to have a texting ban.
The representative had bigger hopes for his bill. “I can’t understand why [the Ohio Senate] would want to weaken the bill, but they succeeded,” he said, adding that maybe Senate members didn’t want to get pulled over themselves.
Personal freedom was one reason politicians gave Damschroder for not wanting a ban.
“[Texting and driving] infringes on the personal freedom of drivers coming down the opposite side of the highway, those Ohioans who expect the safest possible highway you can make,” he said.
Ralston said other distracted driving behaviors — from tending to a child to picking something up off the floor to eating — also pose a threat.
“There’s a wide variety of things that can distract,” she said. From 2009-11 in Ohio, there were 31,231 crashes, including 74 fatal crashes and 7,825 injury crashes, that were caused by distracted driving, according to the OSHP. Numbers for how many accidents are caused by texting aren’t kept yet.
On average, sending or receiving text messages takes a driver’s eyes from the road for 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, this is enough time to go over the length of an entire football field, according to the OSHP.
For more information, visit www.distraction.gov.