Texting and driving still gets a slap on the wrist in Ohio

Ohio is on the verge of doing the absolute minimum to combat what two- thirds of the other states have already recognized as a deadly highway hazard: texting while driving.

The Ohio Senate passed a watered-down version of an earlier House bill that not only fails to treat texting with the seriousness that it deserves, but opened up loopholes large enough for anyone over the age of 18 to drive through in a Mack truck.

The Senate bill would make an adult who texts and drives guilty of a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $150. But the House had made texting and driving a primary offense, meaning a police officer who witnessed that behavior could pull the driver over and write up him or her. The Senate relegated texting to a secondary offense, like Ohio’s mandatory seatbelt law, which requires police to have another reason for pulling over the driver.

There’s a big difference

That’s wrong on a number of levels. First, it encourages some officers to “find” another reason for pulling the texting driver over (and anyone who believes that doesn’t happen now with seatbelt tickets hasn’t been written up for driving without a seatbelt). But more important, 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 endangers everyone else on or near the road, including pedestrians.

The bill is much tougher on younger drivers. It makes texting, talking or otherwise using any electronic wireless communications device a primary offense for any driver under 18. That provision was pushed by one of the House bill sponsors, Rep. Rex Damschroder, R.-Fremont, after a newly licensed 16-year-old girl in his district crossed the center line while texting and killed a motorcyclist riding the other way.

While we’ll acknowledge that younger drivers are more inclined to make mistakes by virtue of their inexperience behind the wheel, 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 the driver.

This bill would have done nothing to dissuade Whitney Yeager from texting back in 2009, when her car struck and killed David Muslovski of Struthers as he took a morning walk on Middletown Road. She was 19 at the time.

Beyond that, the Senate injected too many exceptions for adult drivers as to make it virtually unenforceable. State Sen. Capri Cafaro, D.-Hubbard, who questioned the law on several grounds, noted: “There are 10 exemptions for adult drivers to utilize electronic devices behind the wheel. ... 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.”

Those exceptions make this bill a traffic-court lawyer’s dream. No lawyer — and no driver who bothers to hire a lawyer — is likely to face conviction under this law.

Treat it as a real crime

All that being said, the biggest weakness of this law is that it does not do the one thing that would have made texting drivers accountable for their reckless behavior — and that would be to legally define texting as reckless behavior.

As it stands today, most drivers who text and kill are being prosecuted as negligent motorists, which means they face at most a misdemeanor conviction. The case of Yeager has been working its way through court for almost three years, and the most she faces is six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Her oft-delayed sentencing has been reset yet again for Aug. 7.

As we’ve said before, it is not an accident when a driver makes a conscious decision to pay attention to something other than the road, and that decision leads to another person’s death.

A driver who chooses to drink and drive faces a felony vehicular homicide charge when someone dies as a result of that bad decision. Likewise, someone who kills while texting and driving should face a felony — not a misdemeanor — count. Neither action is negligent; both are reckless.

That both the House and Senate missed an opportunity to hold a homicidal driver accountable for the needless taking of another person’s life is a blot on this session of the General Assembly. Unfortunately, it is not one that is likely to be erased anytime soon.

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