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WAUSEON -- Wauseon police Chief Keith Torbet has seen the position a thousand times: a driver's arms draped around the steering wheel, cell phone prominently visible above the wheel, and both thumbs moving.
That soon could change with the adoption of a city ordinance that would make it illegal to send text messages or use the Internet while driving. City Council is expected to approve the ban when it meets Monday, which would make Wauseon the second city in northwest Ohio to ban the practice of sending text messages while driving.
Toledo's law took effect Jan. 1, 2010. A statewide ban was approved overwhelmingly in the House in June but has yet to be voted on in the Senate.
"We were waiting for the state to come out with something, but it's getting to the point where enough is enough," Chief Torbet said. "When they figure out what to do, if theirs is tougher than ours, we'll enforce theirs. If ours is stricter, we'll keep ours on the books."
State Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont) co-sponsored the statewide measure with Democratic Rep. Nancy Garland of New Albany, Ohio. He said that as more communities adopt bans on sending texts while driving, it makes the need for a statewide law more urgent.
"One more town like Wauseon passing the bill against texting makes it more important that we pass this because that increases the patchwork across the state," Mr. Damschroder said. "Right now, I'm driving into Tiffin. I don't know if they have a texting ban. That patchwork will be eliminated if this bill becomes law."
Thirty-four states, he said, have adopted such bans, including Michigan.
"Studies show it's more dangerous than drunk driving," Mr. Damschroder said. "It's about equivalent to trying to read the newspaper while driving."
Wauseon Mayor Jerry Dehnbostel is eager to see the law put into place. He said all City Council members have said they support it.
"I've just seen too many people that are texting while they're driving," he said. "I see it as just a potential accident waiting to happen."
Chief Torbet said investigators suspected text-messaging was a factor in several automobile crashes in Wauseon and Fulton County. None has been fatal.
Under Wauseon's proposed ordinance, it would be a minor misdemeanor to send, read, or write a text message or access the Internet while driving. The law is not limited to cell phones but includes any electronic device, including an iPad or personal computer, that can send and receive messages or access the Internet.
A motorist who is convicted of a second offense within one year or a driver who causes an accident resulting in personal injury to any person could be found guilty of a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
In Toledo, where a first offense for sending a text message while driving also is a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $150, only 12 motorists have been cited since the law took effect more than 21 months ago.
While enforcement is difficult, Mr. Damschroder said he feels a statewide ban will have a great impact on young drivers if they are told during driver's training courses that it's illegal, plain and simple.
Chief Torbet agreed, saying he believes it will deter people from sending texts while they drive.
"The goal is to be proactive -- basically compliance and safety," Chief Torbet said. "Put the phone down. Get home. If you really need to use the phone, if you really need to text someone, pull off the side of the road. The 10 seconds you save is not worth your life or someone else's."
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