Distracted driving law off to promising start

Staff photo / Chris McBride Mahoning County Area Court Canfield Judge Molly Johnson oversees her Friday court hearings, some of which included offenders of Ohio’s new distracted driving law.

CANFIELD — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and officials from the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Ohio Traffic Safety Office are optimistic about the impact of Ohio’s strengthened distracted driving law on road safety.

DeWine stated in a recent news release, “Most distracted driving can be attributed to cellphone use, and this new report shows that Ohioans are committed to reducing this dangerous behavior.”

William Cappabianca, chief deputy of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, said a clear danger is posed by electronic distractions while driving. He stated, “People that are driving and using their iPhone, tablets, laptop reduce their awareness, and the driving environment decision-making process and their driving performance.”

The chief deputy said the law has potential to enhance safety for both drivers and pedestrians, affirming, “I’m happy with the law because I know at the end of the day it’s going to keep drivers and pedestrians more safe.”

Since the law’s implementation last April, the MCSO has been enforcing it actively, issuing 42 citations in 2023 and 18 so far in 2024 for distracted driving. Cappabianca said the shift to a primary offense has facilitated enforcement, allowing deputies to initiate stops based solely on observing electronic device use.

Furthermore, strategic enforcement efforts have been implemented, with deputies dedicating blocks of time to focus specifically on combating distracted driving, supported by grants from the Ohio Traffic Safety Office.

Mahoning County Area Court Canfield Judge Molly Johnson echoed concerns about distracted driving and discussed the nuances of the law.

“The way that it works is that it’s any part of your body. Now, there are exceptions to that, but it’s limited,” she said.

Johnson clarified the limitations on phone use while driving, noting a one-touch hang-up and dial is permissible for phone calls, as is using a bluetooth device that responds to voice commands.

On enforcement trends, Johnson said, “I would say on average, since the start of the year, I would have seen 20 to 25 of these cases a week in Canfield court.”

The judge described the law having drawn a diverse crowd to her courtroom.

“I see all ages, all races, all different types of vehicles, all socioeconomic classes. And my experience is that most people come in and essentially say they didn’t know that the law has changed,’ Johnson said. “So I would say that most people are not aware of this new law. It’s not that they’re intentionally breaking the law. They just don’t have that knowledge yet.”

Despite initial challenges, Johnson cited the effectiveness of the law, observing a lack of repeat offenders in her jurisdiction.

Johnson said the importance of education and the opportunity for offenders to attend classes helps them to understand the law and its implications. She stated, “It makes good sense that on a first offense, individuals have the opportunity to take that class to educate themselves about the law and the dangers of holding their phone while driving. And that they, in exchange for that, will not have points or a fine.”

However, Johnson cautioned that this option does not extend to second offenses. “That said, I’m also very careful to explain to everyone that comes in with one of these citations that that option does not exist on a second offense,” Johnson said.

“Once you know about the law, once you’ve taken the class on a second offense, an opportunity to avoid the points, and a fine, it’s just you’re getting a $250 fine, and three points on your driver’s license.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Chris McBride at cmcbride@tribtoday.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribToday.


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