Ohio mulls limits on cell-phone use, texts while driving

8/21/2009
BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - We've all seen them: The car traveling at an unusually slow speed, merging without a signal, or slightly swerving in its lane.

As you pass, you can see the driver enthralled in a cell phone conversation or even with his head down in the midst of reading or sending a text message.

"There ought to be a law,'' you mutter. There might be soon.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have banned text messaging while driving. Six more have enacted bans focused exclusively on new and young drivers. Six states prohibit talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.

In Ohio, half a dozen bills have been introduced in recent weeks, proposing everything from a ban on texting while driving for all motorists to a ban on hand-held cell phone use for young drivers.

The proposals have not had a committee hearing, but the governor and legislative leaders have generally voiced support for a texting ban of some sort.

"Cell phones are the distraction that everybody loves to hate,'' said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, an organization representing state highway safety officials.

The association, however, has recommended a prohibition on hand-held cell phones only for new drivers and school bus drivers.

"The number of texting-ban states has more than doubled this year,'' Mr. Adkins said. "It's much more rare to see states pass hand-held bans. These bans are difficult to enforce, and it's not clear yet how much of an impact they've had. More research needs to be done.''

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute recently concluded that texting increases by 23 times the risk of a collision or close call for truck drivers.

The Ohio Conference of AAA Clubs supports a texting ban for all drivers and would like to see it made a primary offense that would allow police to pull over a motorist simply for texting.

"If it's a secondary offense, you have to be stopped for something else, like killing somebody,'' said Ric Oxender, lobbyist for the conference. "A police officer could pull up beside somebody, see that it's an accident waiting to happen, and can't do anything about it.''

Bills making the offense both primary and secondary have been introduced in Ohio.

While support for a texting ban is strong in both the Senate and House, the level of the offense is a different matter. Ohio still argues over whether its mandatory seat belt law should be a primary offense. Just this year, primary seat belt language was included in the state transportation budget by the Democrat-controlled House only to be removed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

"There are a number of very conservative legislators who feel these are personal rights,'' Mr. Oxender said. "We even passed a booster seat law, but we couldn't hold that as a primary offense, and we were talking about kids. A primary-offense [texting] bill could come out of the House, but it would be very tough in the Senate.''

Rep. Nancy Garland, a Democrat from suburban Columbus, introduced a bill to make texting while driving a primary offense and minor misdemeanor.

"If we're going to make a difference in affecting people's behavior, it has to be a primary offense,'' she said. She participated in a demonstration this week in which she drove through an obstacle course while texting. A few orange cones sacrificed their lives so that someone else could receive her messages.

"This bill is about public safety,'' Ms. Garland said. "It's about making the roads safe for not only the driver but also the other people on the highway.''

The U.S. Department of Transportation plans a summit on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 focusing on the issue of driver distraction.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.