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Published: Tuesday, 5/8/2012

Driven to distraction

BLADE STAFF

State lawmakers had good intentions when they backed a bill that aims to penalize motorists who send or read text messages behind the wheel. But the version of the measure that passed the Ohio Senate last week is seriously flawed and deserves a veto if it reaches Gov. John Kasich's desk.

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Distracted drivers were responsible for accidents that killed 5,474 people in 2009. And that's only the deaths that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can definitely link to distractions behind the wheel. According to the federal agency, one out of six fatal accidents and one out of five injury accidents in 2009 was caused by driver distraction.

Drivers who use a hand-held device are four times as likely to be injured in an accident as those who don't. People who text-message behind the wheel are 23 times more likely to get into an accident than drivers who aren't distracted.

Something has to be done. But neither the House- nor Senate-approved version of the bill is the answer.

Under the Senate version, drivers 18 years old or older could not be stopped for texting while driving. They could only be charged with the offense if police stopped them for another reason.

But drivers under 18 who use any wireless communication device while driving could be pulled over. That leaves law enforcement officers with the impossible task of telling 17-year-old drivers from 19-year-old ones.

The flashing thumbs of teenagers can text rings around their elders. They have quicker reflexes and shorter reaction times. The bill's two-tiered punishment system wrongly suggests that the use of hand-held devices is safer for technophobic old folks. It also has enough loopholes to make it virtually useless.

State Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) said: "I make it a practice never to vote for a law that I might be guilty of." That quip trivializes the pain of families of people who are killed and injured in distracted-driving accidents. But he correctly observed that the bill "does a fine job of doing nothing."

The proper correction to this bad bill was proposed by State Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo): "Why don't we pass meaningful legislation that requires all communication while driving in Ohio to be totally hands-free?"

One law, for adults and teenagers. One law, which doesn't ask police to play guess-your-age. One law that recognizes that the explosion in hand-held electronics devices has just begun.

If the state House doesn't stand firm for a stronger, fairer bill as it considers the changes the Senate made to its version, Governor Kasich should send lawmakers back to driving-legislation school.



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