Starting Tuesday, state and local law enforcement officers can pull over Ohio drivers if they appear to be using a cellphone while driving.
Prohibited activities include texting, typing an address into GPS, dialing a phone number or holding a phone in front of you while talking on speakerphone. Motorists can swipe their phone once to answer a call and talk on the phone only while holding the phone to their ear. Otherwise, they need to go completely hands-free with a few exceptions.
For the first six months, motorists who violate the new law will be given written warnings, though officers can pursue additional charges if they find other violations after stopping the vehicle.
Examples provided by Clark County Sheriff Deborah Burchett are if someone is pulled over for texting and found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they will be arrested for driving under the influence. If someone stopped under the new law is under suspension or doesn’t have a drivers license, they will get a warning for using their cellphone and a citation for the other violation.
Burchett said the six month warning period will provide an “excellent opportunity” to educate drivers on the new law.
“There are many positive learning opportunities for drivers during these encounters and I believe that the sheriff’s office will be able to deliver the message in a polite, professional, and courteous manner,” she said.
Officers also can still issue a secondary offense citation for distracted driving if a motorist is stopped for another infraction during the warning period.
Starting Oct. 5, if a driver is stopped for distracted driving, the first offense is a $150 fine and two points on their driving record. A driver can take an education course to drop the two points and fine on a first offense.
However, the penalties increase on a second or third offense and the lookback period is two years. On a second offense, the penalty is $250 and three points on their driving record, and a third offense penalty is $500, four points on the driving record and up to a 90-day license suspension.
The law was passed in response to the prevalence of distracted driving crashes and deaths in Ohio.
“It takes an average of about four seconds to read a text and at 50 mph, you’ve gone the distance of a football field,” said Sgt. Tyler Ross, Ohio State Highway Patrol public affairs officer. “These types of crashes are 100% avoidable. Our goal is to reduce the number of distracted driving crashes and serious injuries or fatalities.”
Training for officers
While the public is getting used to the new law — passed by the General Assembly as Ohio Senate Bill 288 and signed by the governor in January — so are the officers enforcing it.
“Due to the number of changes in Ohio Senate Bill 288, the law department and police department, specifically the Training Bureau, are working on issuing guidance regarding the changes in legislation,” said Dayton Police Lt. Col. Eric Henderson.
Kelly May, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office which oversees the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission, said the new law signed in January has been incorporated in the 2023 legal update for police officer who are required to have 25 hours of mandatory continuing professional training annually.
May was unable to say last week now many Ohio law enforcement agencies have taken the state training at this point, though she emphasized local law enforcement agencies are also doing their own internal training for officers as well.
In Lebanon, for example, Police Chief Jeff Mitchell said their training officer updated officers and developed a PowerPoint to educate officers on the nuances of the new distracted driving law.
“The officers put together a PowerPoint with text to show officers what the exceptions are and provide more in-depth information,” Mitchell said. “It’s going to be a learning curve for police and the general public.”
He said officers will have to assess the situation and use common sense in taking in all of the elements to determine if there is a violation.
“Phones are a part of what we are today,” Mitchell said.
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said his agency is always concerned when the law gives officers another reason to pull people over, though the law already provides plenty of excuses to initiate a traffic stop.
“If a police officer wants to pull you over, they’re going to find a reason to do it,” he said.
Daniels said he hopes the state has a robust public education program, and it will be important for agencies to comply with rules that require them to track the race of people cited. That information will be reported to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office annually.
“Hopefully the data will reveal if there are problems (with profiling) or are not problems, and if there are problems what the problems might be,” he said.
Local law enforcement agencies interviewed stressed that they don’t tolerate profiling by their officers.
Henderson said Dayton police have a bias-free policing policy, which says in part: “Race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, ethnicity, cultural affiliation, age, disability, economic status, or affiliation with any other similar identifiable group shall not be used as the basis for providing law enforcement services or the enforcement of laws.”
“If a citizen feels they have a complaint about a traffic stop or any other encounter, there are several avenues for a citizen to make a formal complaint,” Henderson said, noting the following option:
- Contact the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center at 937-333-COPS (2677) and ask to be contacted by a supervisor
- Contact the Professional Standards Bureau at 937-333-1018, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or appear in person/send correspondence to 371 W. Second St., Dayton, Ohio, 45402
- Contact the Dayton Mediation Center at 937-333-2356 or https://www.daytonmediationcenter.org/police-complaint-referrals
There are more than a dozen of exceptions to the new law, and motorists can still use the hands-free function of their cellphones in their vehicles. Motorists can also talk on a cellphone as long it is held to their ear.
Other exceptions allow motorists to text or use their cellphones while stopped; at a red light; outside the lane of travel on a shoulder; during an emergency to contact first responders or a hospital; stuck in traffic congestion; use of the speakerphone function; one touch or swipe; or receiving navigational, vehicle or traffic information. However, the motorist can not use their body to hold or support the device or enter letters, numbers and symbols.
Police, other first responders and utility workers are exempt from the law.
According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s website, distracted driving is engaging in any activity that is not necessary to the operation of a vehicle and that impairs, or reasonably would be expected to impair, the ability of the operator to drive the vehicle safely.
Police, other first responders and utility workers are exempt
The highway patrol’s online OSTATS dashboard has recorded since 2018 through March 23 there were 62,134 distracted driving crashes and 1,824 fatal and serious injuries.
Credit: Nick Graham
Credit: Nick Graham
During that same time period, troopers have issued 41,175 distracted driving citations on what was previously a secondary offense, meaning it was not the reason why a motorist was stopped.
“This is a stark reminder that this is a problem,” said Sgt. Ross. “It’s a problem we see every day.”
“We just want drivers to be educated on the traffic laws and realize that the text they just sent while driving could have waited,” said Burchett, Clark County’s sheriff. “The application they just looked at on their phone could have waited. The social media post could have waited. We don’t want our community to have to wait to see their loved one again in heaven.”
What is ‘distracted driving’
Ohio State Highway Patrol Sgt. Tyler Ross, a public affairs officer, said there are three types of distracted driving:
- Manual: Anything that takes one or both hands off the wheel such as adjusting settings in the car; reaching for objects in the car; or grooming.
- Visual: Anything that causes a driver to take their eyes off the road such as looking at a phone or GPS device; viewing wildlife or pedestrians; staring at billboards, roadside crashes, etc.
- Cognitive: Anything that takes your mind off the road such as speaking with passengers; talking on a cell phone or daydreaming.
Patrol officials said texting while driving is exceptionally bad and unsafe because it incorporates all three forms of distracted driving.
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