During the drive to work or to the store, the average motorist in Ohio is likely to see as many other drivers on the road who are chatting on their phones or texting as those who are speeding.
And yet, in the year since Ohio’s law limiting texting and cellphone use went into effect, the Ohio State Highway Patrol has issued just 273 citations to violators of the new anti-texting law. During the same period, troopers have issued 367,000 speeding tickets.
That’s a factor of about 1,360 to one.
The Ohio General Assembly resisted cracking down on texting behind the wheel in Ohio, even as innocent motorists and pedestrians were being killed. Ohio was the 39th state to pass a texting ban in May 2012. Even then there was a grace period so that motorists could get used to the idea that they couldn’t engage in a behavior that was so obviously dangerous that any thinking motorist should have known not to do it.
It wasn’t until last February that the law went fully into effect. Under the law, younger drivers cannot talk on their phones and are prohibited from texting or using other hand-held devices, such as an iPod. For them, it’s a primary offense — meaning drivers can be pulled over specifically for committing the act.
For those 18 and older, texting while driving is a secondary offense, just like not wearing a seat belt. That means an officer has to stop a driver for another offense before issuing a citation. It makes some sense for a seat-belt infraction to be a secondary offense because the person breaking the law is endangering no one but himself or herself. The texting driver, on the other hand, is endangering everyone else on or near the road.
The law carries possible fines of $150 for the first offense, and teens could also have their license suspended for 60 days. Repeat offenders could face a $300 fine, and repeat offenders under 18 could have their licenses taken away for a year.
We suspect that few of the 273 drivers who were cited got the maximum, because it seems that the only people who take the dangers of texting and driving seriously are the families of those who have been killed by a texting driver.
Even when another motorist, passenger or pedestrian is killed when a distracted driver causes an accident, the penalty does not match the offense. It isn’t really an accident when one party chooses to behave recklessly.
A driver who chooses to drink and drive faces a felony vehicular homicide charge when someone dies as a result of that reckless behavior. Likewise, someone who kills while texting and driving should face a felony — not a mis- demeanor — count.
Had the Legislature made it mandatory for a prosecutor to charge the driver in a fatal cell-phone accident with felony vehicular homicide, the law would have had some teeth.
As it stands today, Ohio has a weak law that is being under enforced. When drivers are 1,300 times more likely to be cited for speeding than for driving while texting (or in the case of teenagers texting or talking on a phone), no one can claim that the problem of distracted driving is being treated as the serious danger that it is.
It is past time for stronger enforcement of the law. A recent state Health Department youth-risk survey found that nearly half of Ohio teen drivers had texted or emailed while behind the wheel. But of those 273 tickets issued by the patrol over the past year, only 43 were given to drivers under the age of 18.
One reason for that may be that troopers can’t be sure that a driver they see texting or talking is 17 or 19. That confusion could be easily corrected by the Legislature making violation of the law a primary offense regardless of age.