Police: Drivers not improving cell phone safety; warning period ends this fall

It’s now illegal in most cases to do more than a single tap or swipe on your cell phone while driving

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

It’s been four months since Ohio’s distracted driving law took effect via a six-month warning period, and local police departments say they aren’t seeing much change in drivers — despite being weeks away from the law going into full effect.

“I have driven beside motorists who have their phone directly in their face and they don’t even realize the marked patrol Tahoe next to them,” said Miamisburg Police Sgt. Jon Thompson. “We know that distracted driving causes collisions. We see collisions at regular road speed with no signs of attempted braking. That is a recipe for disaster.”

Police have been issuing warnings since April, but the law goes into full effect Thursday, Oct. 5, meaning you could be fined, charged and get points assessed to your driver’s license if a police officer sees you using your phone in a non-approved manner.

What are the rules?

With a few exceptions, it is now illegal to use or hold a cell phone in your hand or lap or crook of your shoulder while driving. Drivers over age 18 years old can make or receive calls via hands-free devices (Bluetooth, speakerphone, earpiece, watch, etc).

According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, if you must physically manipulate your device (to text, dial, put an address into a maps app, etc.), you should pull over before handling your phone. “In most cases, anything more than a single touch or swipe is against the law,” ODOT says.

Some exceptions are allowed, including:

  • Starting or stopping a call with a single touch or swipe, then holding their phone to your ear;
  • Holding a cell phone while stopped at a traffic light or parked on a road or highway during an emergency;
  • Drivers reporting an emergency to emergency first responders;
  • Phone use by on-duty first responders, utility workers during outages, licensed operators using an amateur radio, or commercial truck drivers using a mobile data terminal.

Distracted driving crashes common

Several police departments in the area said that they could not provide exact data on the number of distracted driving warnings issued since April. But police in Trotwood and Vandalia said they have seen little change in drivers’ habits the past four months.

“There is a fair percentage of crashes we respond to where there has been some form of distracted driving,” said Vandalia Police Chief Kurt Althouse. “Whether it’s a device that someone’s on or whether they’re messing with the radio or doing something else that’s keeping them from focusing on the road. ... We’re hoping as the enforcement date nears that we’ll have more drivers become aware of it.”

Trotwood police say that they haven’t been enforcing the law strictly yet, but are curious as to how different law enforcement agencies will proceed after Oct. 5.

“We haven’t seen a change necessarily ... but then again we haven’t really super-enforced this just because it was that warning period,” said Sgt. Michael Molchan of Trotwood police. “Going forward it’ll be interesting to see how many people actually write citations and their reasonings behind them.”

“(This) period is just to get information out, (to) get voluntary compliance so that when it comes to the point where citations can be issued, there’s no questions about ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I was uninformed,’ “ Molchan said.

Police train on new law

As the public learns to adjust to the new law in the coming months, officers are also being trained to assess situations in which they pull people over, and learning how the law works and how to determine what move to make.

Ohio State Highway Patrol officials said they and other departments have been releasing training resources for officers and deputies across the state.

“The training was more about the new law and the changes, to make them (officers) more familiar with it. ... Internally we had our own video,” said OSHP Sgt. Ryan Purpura.

Officers are also required to report racial data of everyone they pull over, as questions were raised about possible profiling incidents.

Molchan says that officers go through rigorous training to assure that they are ready to enforce the new law on the road. The training includes literature to study, required presentations, and required quizzes.

“All of the information (that was given to them) was disseminated to supervisors who would have roll-call training with their officers to explain what was going on, ramifications, what we’re allowed to do, making sure it’s of probable cause ... and the process going past that point,” Molchan said.

According to data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol, there have been 5,110 crashes related to distracted driving in 2023 alone.

“So many collisions and injuries could be prevented by drivers being fully engaged in the operation of their vehicle and paying close attention to their surroundings,” said Miamisburg Police Sgt. Jon Thompson.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

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