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Ban texting and driving in Ohio, and begin saving lives

Published: Wed, September 28, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

The Ohio Senate begins work today on a bill that was approved by the House in the spring and is long overdue for passage and signing by Gov. John Kasich.

The Senate Transportation Committee will begin hearings on House Bill 99, which will ban texting while driving.

Thirty-four other states already have enacted texting bans, but that’s only a sign that Ohio is behind in the game; it is not of itself a reason for Ohio to ban behind-the-wheel texting. The need is derived by one thing: As long as the state remains silent on the issue, more people will die. Some will die at their own hand when the car they are driving leaves the road. Some will die as passengers in such cars. Some will die when a texter’s car crosses the center line and rams them head-on or smashes into the back of them when they are stopped in traffic. Some will die as pedestrians, run over by a car driven by someone so intent on reading or composing a text message that they won’t even swerve or touch the brakes before running down their victim.

“Drivers who text take their eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds in a 6-second period,” said Rep. Nancy Garland, D-New Albany, during a rally in Columbus in support of the law last week. “That’s like driving the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the road. It’s really scary what could happen in that time period.”

Start with a fine

The bill prohibits driving a vehicle while writing, sending a text message on a mobile communication device. It would establish the violation as a primary traffic offense, and after a six- month warning period, drivers caught texting would face a fine of up to $150.

That is certainly not too stiff a fine for an activity that some studies have shown affects a driver’s reaction time as much or more than drinking while driving.

Regardless of what happens with H.B. 99, we continue to believe that prosecutors and courts should take a tougher stance when adjudicating cases against drivers who text and drive and, consequently, kill or maim.

Most such cases are being pursued as misdemeanors, but there have been a few in which prosecutors have charged the driver with felony vehicular homicide. Judges and juries have split on whether to convict on a felony or misdemeanor charge — basically on whether the behavior is seen as negligent or reckless.

Public perceptions come into play in those cases. Perhaps after H.B. 99 is passed, the public will come to view texting and driving not as a novelty or topic of conversation, but as a choice the driver makes — a choice that places the driver’s desire to communicate over the safety of everyone around him or her.

As we said a month ago, while studies have shown that distracted drivers are every bit as dangerous as intoxicated drivers, the law — and some prosecutors, judges and jurors — aren’t ready to treat them as equally culpable. And, yet, their victims are every bit as dead.

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