Distracted drivers in Ohio might soon face additional $100 fine

Ohio motorists who can’t put down their electronic devices might soon find themselves facing additional fines.

Under House Bill 95, which passed unanimously out of a House committee May 17, drivers who are pulled over for speeding, running a stop sign or other moving violations would get a ticket for that violation, then potentially face an additional $100 fine if they also were driving distracted.

The distracted-driving enhancement would be a secondary offense, meaning law-enforcement officers could impose the additional fine only if they witness the distracted driving while the initial offense was committed.

The State Highway Patrol reported 13,994 crashes in 2016 that involved distracted driving, resulting in 27 deaths and 7,290 injuries. The number of reported distracted drivers rose 11 percent in 2015 and 5 percent in 2016.

“It is our hope that this legislation will encourage drivers to remain focused on the road and help save lives,” said Rep. Jim Hughes, R-Upper Arlington, who is sponsoring the bill along with Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati.

Élise Spriggs of State Auto wrote to lawmakers that “we see business trends that highlight the rising frequency and severity of accidents related to distracted driving.” Since 2013, she wrote, claim frequency in the industry has risen 4.4 percent, and claim loss is up 16.8 percent.

The bill would allow offenders to complete a state distracted-driving safety course in lieu of the fine. Wearing earphones or using a vehicle’s hands-free technology would not trigger the extra distracted-driving penalty.

A similar bill passed the Senate unanimously last session, but did not see a House vote. The bill has wide-ranging support, including county prosecutors, the Ohio Conference of AAA Clubs, the Ohio Insurance Institute and the Ohio Bicycle Federation.

The AAA Foundation’s 2017 Traffic Safety Culture Index found that 81 percent of drivers view texting or emailing while driving as a serious safety threat, despite nearly one in three admitting to typing messages while driving within the past month, and 40 percent reporting receiving messages. More than two-thirds of drivers reported talking on cellphones while driving in the past month.

Ric Oxender, representing the Ohio Conference of AAA Clubs, called the bill a good first step, but said, “We do have concerns with how our law-enforcement personnel can use the law effectively to cite motorists for distracted driving.”

Questions about enforcement have lingered since Ohio lawmakers in 2012 passed a law banning texting while driving.

For adults, the texting violation is a secondary offense, but it’s a primary offense for drivers younger than 18, who are prohibited from using a handheld device while driving for any reason and can face a $150 fine and license suspension.

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