A weak texting-while-driving law is better than no law at all

Today is a day that could have signaled real progress toward making Ohio’s roads safer. Unfortunately, the General Assembly could only bring itself to approve a half measure aimed at reducing texting while driving. And, worse, it missed a chance to hold drivers who text and kill responsible for the consequences of their reckless behavior.

The best that can be said for the texting-while-driving law that goes into effect today is that it is better than nothing. That Ohio had to wait to be the 39th state in the union to pass a law — and even then could only come up with one of the weakest renditions — defies logic, common sense and a respect for the public welfare.

The law that was signed by Gov. John Kasich in May and finally takes effect today won’t have even its baby teeth for another six months. Until then, drivers who violate the law will be given nothing more than a warning. Most drivers — even those who might occasionally text and drive themselves — know such behavior is dangerous and wrong. Giving people a six-month grace period to continue their bad habits sends an unhealthy signal that the Legislature doesn’t really think texting and driving is that big a deal. Tell that to the families of other motorists and pedestrians who have already died at the hands of texting drivers.

No shortage of Flaws

But even after six months the law is flawed on several counts. Texting and driving is a secondary offense for any driver over 18, meaning a citation can only be issued if the driver was stopped for another reason, such as speeding. Those under 18 can be cited for a primary offense for texting or using a cellphone, which makes some sense because less experienced drivers are already mistake prone and are more so when distracted. But it doesn’t matter how old the driver is if he or she ignores the road for three or four seconds while reading or responding to a text. A car traveling the length of a football field while the driver texts can kill without regard to the age of who is behind the wheel.

Equally baffling is the Senate’s amending the bill to follow the state’s mandatory seat belt law in making it a secondary offense. The seat-belt infraction is arguably a secondary offense because the person breaking the law is endangering no one but himself or herself. The texting driver is endangering everyone else on or near the road.

When the law is finally and fully in effect, a violation will be minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $150. Let’s hope that’s a deterrent.

Had the Legislature made it mandatory for a prosecutor to charge the driver in a fatal cell-phone accident with felony vehicular homicide, it would have provided a level of punishment similar to that for drunken drivers. Both drivers choose to engage in an unnecessary and dangerous practice. Their victims are equally dead. And they should logically face similar consequences.

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