By RICK ROUAN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
Brittany Fleischer said she was texting behind the wheel when she nearly rear-ended the car in front of her.
But that near miss hasn’t stopped the 17-year-old Boardman High School student from using her cell phone in the car, and she said a ban on texting while driving would not be enforceable.
“I can pay attention. I look up,” said Fleischer. “I don’t think [police] would catch you. They’d have no idea if you text and look up.”
Fleischer is a part of a generation of drivers that has come of age with access to the Internet, unlimited text messaging plans and global positioning systems all on a cell phone.
Those new young drivers who use portable technology behind the wheel are of particular concern, according to a study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration released in July.
“You’ve got 10- and 12-year-olds that have four and five years of experience with these things before they get behind the wheel of a car,” said Larry Kingston, executive director of the Northern Ohio branch of the National Safety Council. Kingston also owns Kingston Driver Training in Boardman.
“Anybody with a near miss should have that ‘a-ha’ moment when they realize” the danger, he said.
Local, state and federal governments have taken notice of the issue.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama banned federal employees from sending text messages while driving on the job. The Ohio General Assembly is considering several proposed bans.
And in Niles, the city council tabled an ordinance last week that would levy fines against drivers caught talking on the phone or texting on the road.
The proposed law in Niles would fine violators $25 for a first offense, $50 for a second and $100 for every violation thereafter, according to the draft ordinance. But Councilman Ed Stredney, D-3rd, said that the city tabled the ordinance to wait for state action.
“My guess is that if there was a statewide ban or law, there would be a lot more awareness for it,” Stredney said.
Niles residents opposed to the ordinance complained at a council meeting earlier this month. The city’s police chief, Bruce Simeone, said it would be difficult to enforce.
Problems with enforcement, Stredney said, played heavily into the decision to put the ordinance on the shelf for now.
“I’m not going to take my time to pass a paper law that can never be enforced,” he said.
The state Legislature is considering bills related to distracted driving.
Two proposed bills in the Ohio Senate would either ban texting while driving or ban using “mobile communication devices” in general. The violations would be secondary offenses that do not place points on the violator’s license.
A proposed House bill does not specify whether texting while driving would be a primary or secondary offense.
All three bills are in the committee stage. The House bill is in the Public Safety and Homeland Security committee, of which state Rep. Tom Letson of Warren, D-64th, is a member.
Letson said that he is unsure whether texting while driving should be a primary or secondary offense, but he said he is convinced a complete ban on cell phones behind the wheel would not work.
“A cell-phone ban won’t work — period — because we are constantly people of divided attention,” Letson said. “We relish the fact that we multi-task.”
Divided attention behind the wheel, studies have suggested, is “detrimental to the health and safety of people around highways,” said Letson.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s study concluded that drivers are more likely to take risks when using “both hand-held and hands-free mobile phones.”
Letson said he is a strong proponent of using hands-free headsets and that he is on his fourth one himself.
Officials at the National Safety Council want a full cell-phone ban, Kingston said.
Using a hands-free headset does not help alleviate the risk of crashing, Kingston said, because drivers are using the part of the brain needed to make quick decisions to have a conversation instead.
But Kingston said that the legislation is “back-burner stuff” right now as lawmakers contend with how to reverse the downturn in the economy.
The teenagers who go to Kingston’s driving school hear about the dangers of texting while driving. But Kingston said the process of texting or making a phone call releases endorphins to the pleasure-center of the brain.
The mantra for Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers is “a distracted driver is a deadly driver,” said Lt. Joe Dragovich, commander of the Southington Post.
Drivers can be distracted by a number of things, and Dragovich said he once pulled a man over and discovered he was reading the newspaper.
“I’ve tried to stop people who are talking on the cell phone, and it’s taken a while for them to realize there’s a cruiser behind them with lights on,” Dragovich said.
Dragovich said that crashes are down for his post, but he could not pinpoint a reason.
In 2008, distracted driving contributed to 407 crashes that resulted in one fatality and 112 injuries in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, according to OSHP statistics. Those account for 4 to 5 percent of distracted-driving accidents statewide.
National studies have said that measuring the number of crashes that result from texting or talking on a cell phone while driving is difficult.
“You don’t really think about it until you almost get into a wreck,” said Troy Rice, 22, of Youngstown. “You just do it because you want to.”
Rice questioned how police could enforce the law but conceded that a ban would “cause a lot of young adults to think twice.”
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded that cell-phone bans in Washington, D.C., New York and Connecticut have reduced hand-held phone use, but it could not measure an overall phone-use decrease because of the rise of hands-free headsets. The study was released earlier this month.
A survey by Columbus-based Nationwide Insurance on distracted driving concluded that 18 percent of the respondents who said they use a cell phone while driving would not change their behavior if a ban passed.
The cell-phone industry is on board with texting bans but remains neutral on outright bans of cell-phone use in cars, said John Walls, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association.
“There is no way you can safely operate a vehicle with your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel,” he said.