Ohio authorities propose stronger penalties for distracted drivers

This story first appeared on The Center Square.

State lawmakers are pushing a new bill aimed at strengthening Ohio’s laws regarding the use of wireless devices and smartphones while driving.

The Hands-Free Ohio bill, sponsored by Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, and Sen. Sean J. O’Brien, D-Bazetta, would make using an electronic wireless device while driving a primary offense.

In Ohio, using a mobile device to write, send or read a text-based communication while driving is a secondary offense for adults. Authorities cannot make a traffic stop unless the driver also commits a primary traffic offense, such as running a red light.

“The use of wireless devices while driving has become so common that many drivers don’t stop to consider the deadly consequences,” Gov. Mike DeWine said in a news release. “Although Ohio’s current laws are well-intended, they simply haven’t gone far enough to change the culture around using technology behind the wheel. By strengthening Ohio’s laws, we believe we can change behaviors, prevent crashes, and save lives.”

The current penalty is a fine of up to $150; however, the proposed Hands-Free Ohio bill would increase penalties for drivers. In instances where a driver using a device causes a severe injury or death, the penalties would mirror those of drunken driving, officials said.

Data indicates 2019 was the second-deadliest year of the past decade, and at least 1,157 people died in traffic crashes in the Buckeye State.

“We must make the use of wireless devices behind the wheel as unacceptable as drinking and driving is today, and we believe that tougher consequences will be a strong deterrent,” Kunze said in a news release. “The purpose of this bill is not to make more traffic stops or put more people in jail, it’s to get drivers to put down their phones so that people stop getting hurt.”

The proposed legislation includes several exemptions, such as making emergency calls. It also would allow motorists to use GPS devices for navigation, but they would have to enter the destination before starting their journey and would not be permitted to hold the device.

Under the legislation, law enforcement would only issue warnings to violators for the first six months, should the bill become a law. The Ohio Department of Transportation would also install road signs to inform out-of-state drivers about the new law.

“We have no doubt that fatal crashes in Ohio have increased due to smartphone use,” O’Brien said in a news release. “Other states that have enacted hands-free laws have seen significant reductions in traffic fatalities, and I’m confident that our Hands-Free Ohio bill will lead to more responsible driving all over the state.”

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Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is the owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits Express Telegraph and Railfanning.org.