COLUMBUS — Even as some members conceded that they are as guilty as anyone, the Ohio Senate voted 25-8 across party lines today to make Ohio the 38th state to criminalize texting while driving.
They also went a step further to prohibit teen drivers from operating or programming a cell phone, portable computer, directional device, or any other electronic device while driving.
An adult who texts and drives would be guilty of a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $150. Like Ohio’s mandatory seat belt law, it would be a secondary offense requiring police to have another reason for pulling the driver over.
But for the teen under the age of 18 who violates the broader ban on electronic devices, it would be a primary offense, meaning police would need no other reason for the traffic stop. The first offense could lead to a $150 fine and a 60-day license suspension. The second would carry a $300 fine and one-year suspension.
Sen. John Eklund (R., Chardon) pointed to a previously enacted law that made it illegal for a teen driver to have more than one non-family passenger in his vehicle as evidence that curbing driver distractions saves lives.
“Over the course of three years, a 26 percent reduction in the number of fatalities of that group of drivers in the state of Ohio… by removing a distraction,’’ he said. “There is nobody in this room who would suggest that the use of these gizmos is not a distraction…
“When this bill passes, don’t violate the law,’’ Mr. Eklund said. “It’s really very simple, and you’re not then going to be called a hypocrite.’’
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont) and Nancy Garland (D., New Albany), overwhelmingly passed the Ohio House last year but without the more restrictive provisions applying to teen drivers. Mr. Damschroder introduced it after a newly licensed 16-year-old girl in his district, while texting, crossed the center line and killed a motorcyclist headed in the opposite direction.
Some opponents of the bill, however, argued that it infringes on individual rights while including so many exceptions as to render it unenforceable.
“There are 10 exemptions for adult drivers to utilize electronic devices behind the wheel…,’’ said Sen. Capri Cafaro (D., Hubbard). “This definition (of “texting’’) basically says that… I can use my phone to read the newspaper, play games, and write myself a note because it’s not an e-mail, a text message, or instant message. I certainly don’t feel that this bill fulfills the objective that it sets out to achieve.’’
Among members representing northwest Ohio, the bill drew support from Sens. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), Cliff Hite (R., Findlay), and David Burke (R., Marysville). The sole northwest vote in opposition was cast by Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo), who offered an unsuccessful amendment to make it more restrictive.
“Instead of Ohio passing a controversial law with exemptions and possible loopholes, why don’t we pass meaningful legislation that requires all communication while driving in Ohio to be totally hands free,’’ she said.
The bill now returns to the House for approval of the Senate changes. It would not override more stringent ordinances enacted in local communities. The texting ban in Toledo, for instance, carries a fine of $1,000 plus six months in jail.
Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) argued that having state and local laws could lead to a driver being punished twice for the same activity.