Ohio traffic fatalities spike in 2022: Will new law curb distracted driving deaths?

A deadly week on area roadways is drawing attention to the dangers of distracted driving, something that recently passed legislation Ohio’s governor is expected to sign aims to address by cracking down on smart phone use behind the wheel.

Nine people — including a high school student and a 1-year-old — died on area roads in six recent days, from a crash in Beavercreek Twp. Dec. 16 to traffic deaths on Interstate 75 in Vandalia and in Clark County on Dec. 21.

“A large number of these crashes, while there’s an underlying traffic violation, all came down to the fact that people are not paying attention,” said Sgt. Chris Colbert of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Dayton post.

It’s unclear what role if any handheld electronic devices such cell phones had in these incidents, but they are a major cause of distraction for drivers.

Crash statistics analyzed by the Dayton Daily News show 2022 could become the deadliest in recent years for traffic fatalities and distracted driving in Ohio. In 2022 Montgomery and its seven surrounding counties have had at least 32,752 traffic crashes resulting in 172 deaths, of which 1,541 were blamed on distracted driving — as were eight of the deaths, according to Ohio Department of Public Safety statistics.

From 2013 through 2019, more than 91,000 distracted driving crashes occurred throughout the state of Ohio, according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol. They resulted in more than 47,000 injuries and 305 deaths.

That is what a new law originally submitted by state Rep. Brian Lampton, R-Beavercreek, is intended to prevent.

The new law makes most cases of holding a cell phone or similar device while driving a primary offense, meaning police can stop drivers for that without needing another reason. But officers have to actually observe someone breaking the law in order to stop them.

The law will also hike penalties for using devices while driving. Officers can’t search someone’s phone for evidence of use without a warrant, or unless the driver consents to the search.

For the law’s first six months, offenders will get off with warnings while the state conducts a massive public education campaign.

Breaking down the numbers

Traffic crashes in Ohio have fluctuated in the past four years from a high of 296,474 in 2019 to a low of 245,829 in 2020, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety. But this year is on track to exceed 2019 by perhaps 70,000 crashes.

In 2021 there were 1,356 deaths from traffic crashes in Ohio, the most out of the past four years, according to ODPS. But again, 2022 is on track to top that maximum by about 400 deaths.

In slightly less than four years, 46,099 crashes were dubbed “distracted-related” by ODPS. Those resulted in 151 deaths. The trend is for 2022 to be the deadliest recent year for distracted driving as well.

In our 8-county region, more than a third of the crashes and just under a third of all deaths occurred in Montgomery County. Montgomery also had the highest number of distracted-driving crashes, at 523; and four of the region’s eight distracted-driving deaths.

Next was Butler County, with 7,162 crashes and 30 total deaths, including 282 distracted-driving crashes and two related deaths.

Clark, Darke, Greene and Miami had no deaths attributed to distracted driving, while Preble and Warren counties had one such death each.

In an ODPS summary of statistics, the most common variables identified as relating to crashes were young, inexperienced (but not underage) drivers and elderly drivers. In each area county and statewide, those groups were involved in roughly equal numbers of crashes — and together made up about half of all such accidents, far more than any other factors.

Recent tragedies

Credit: Marshall Gorby

Credit: Marshall Gorby

On Dec. 16, a 17-year-old was driving east on Dayton-Xenia Road with two other teenagers, and ran a stop sign at the intersection with Trebein Road, according to Ohio State Highway Patrol. The teens’ car was hit by a southbound dump truck, killing the 17-year-old. The crash is still under investigation but no charges are expected to be filed, according to state police.

This was the first in a string of deadly crashes:

- Early on Dec. 18 a pickup driven by a Springfield resident went off the left side of westbound Interstate 70 in Harmony Twp., killing the driver and slightly injuring a passenger. “Alcohol is suspected to be a contributing factor,” though the investigation continues, police said.

- Hours later, a 73-year-old Huber Heights woman crossed Salem Avenue from its intersection with Pittsburg Avenue, but failed to yield to an oncoming pickup, according to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. The pickup T-boned the car and the woman died. The police reports lists no contributing circumstances and says the pickup driver, at least, was “not distracted.”

- on Dec. 19 a Troy woman was driving north in the left lane of Interstate 75 near its intersection with I-70. A truck was broken down on the highway, straddling the left shoulder and left lane. The woman’s car hit the truck, overturned and then hit the median wall, according to OSHP. She was seriously hurt and her 1-year-old passenger was killed.

- That same day, a Piqua construction worker was killed while crossing State Route 4 at Chambersburg Road. There may have been some confusion as to whether the road was open, according to the report.

- On Dec. 20, a westbound truck on I-70 near Springfield hit a Dayton man’s car that was disabled in the roadway from a previous crash, OSHP said. The driver of the car was trapped in his vehicle and died at the scene, according to OSHP.

- The same day, one person was killed and eight more injured in a pile-up that closed all of Interstate 75 near State Route 122.

- On the morning of Dec. 21, a crash on Interstate 75 South in Vandalia near East National Road killed one person, the highway patrol said

- A second crash the same day in Clark County killed at least one person, according to the highway Patrol.

Road to new rules

Driver distractions may come from a cell phone, navigation aid, picking something up, or reaching to do something, Colbert said.

“Anything that diverts your attention from the act of driving is distraction,” he said.

In particular, the Dec. 19 crash on Interstate 75 that killed a child appears to have been “simply driver inattention,” Colbert said.

There is no reason for such accidents so long as drivers maintain sufficient distance, pay attention, drive within speed limits and adjust to weather conditions, he said.

Tightening Ohio’s distracted driving law has been on state legislators’ agenda for some time. In the General Assembly session that just ended, new rules finally passed after a convoluted process.

State Reps. Lampton and Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, proposed House Bill 283 in May 2021. A substitute version passed the House in late November 2022, but it seemed to be stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee as the lame-duck session drew to a close.

“The main intent is to change the culture of texting, emailing, virtual meetings and recording videos while driving,” Lampton said in a committee hearing.

Then on Dec. 14 its provisions were tucked into Senate Bill 288, a massive criminal justice overhaul sponsored by state Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville. That package passed both houses. Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to sign the bill, which would go into effect near the end of March 2023.

The final version, though, isn’t as strong as the original bill. Amendments in a House committee by state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, let drivers talk on the phone so long as it’s held to their ear instead of looking at it, and still let them look at phones while stopped at a traffic signal. Lampton said the bill also allows “one swipe” on a screen, just not a prolonged look.

Forty-four states have some form of distracted driving law. Lampton and Abrams noted that within two years of those laws’ passage, traffic deaths dropped consistently.

Kristen Spicker and Ben McLaughlin contributed to this report.

Ohio distracted driving measure explained

What is allowed, banned and exempt?

Holding a cell phone to your ear is allowed, but staring at a handheld phone is not.

Drivers are allowed “one (finger) swipe” on a screen, such as answering a call.

Using an online map or navigation device is fine so long as it’s mounted on the dash or on the console — not held in the hand.

Police, other first responders and utility workers are exempt.

So are two-way radios used by the Amateur Radio Service, AKA “ham radio.”

What can and can’t police do?

Police can stop drivers just for using a handheld electronic device.

But they have to actually see the driver using it.

Officers can’t search an electronic device for evidence of recent use unless they have a warrant, or the driver allows them to do so.

Police agencies will have to track and report racial data on everyone they stop for a distracted-driving violation.

How will people know?

Drivers will have to sign a statement on the new law when they get or renew their licenses.

Driver education classes and questions on license exams will cover the standards.

Signs on some highways and at the state line will warn drivers of the new law.

The state plans to conduct a public information campaign before the law goes into full force.

For the law’s first six months in effect, police can only give written warnings to violators, allowing time for people to learn and adjust to the new rules.

About the Author