News Center 7's Jim Otte flew along with the Ohio State Highway Patrol and their new plane. The plane is designed to help the ground crews (troopers) patrol the roads from the air.

Ohio increases air patrols to catch distracted drivers

The state of Ohio has launched a new enforcement push from the sky to stop distracted and aggressive driving.

Distracted driving, which includes texting, talking on the phone or other behaviors, was a factor in 13,727 crashes in Ohio last year. Fifty-one people died in those accidents and 6,860 people were injured, the patrol statistics show.

Distracted driving crashes in 2018 in local counties totaled: 613 in Montgomery, 423 in Butler, 268 in Warren, 226 in Greene, 168 in Clark, 110 in Miami and 55 in Champaign.

RELATED: Police targeting distracted driving as crashes increase

Ohio law prohibits drivers younger than 18 from using electronic wireless communication devices while driving. Texting while driving is illegal for all drivers but it’s a secondary offense, which means police can only pull the driver over for another infraction such as speeding. Nearly four in 10 drivers admit to looking at their phones even occasionally, according to a AAA survey.

Catching distracted drivers from the sky

From 3,500-feet in the sky, Ohio Highway Patrol Troopers Jonathan Nagy and Andrew Edinger spotted the red Ford Escape driving too close and speeding south along Interstate 75 near Piqua.

Go behind the scenes with the plane that the Ohio State Highway Patrol uses to help patrol the streets below.

Nagy and Edinger flew in a 2018 Gipps Aero Airvan equipped with a high-definition camera mounted to belly of the aircraft to capture infractions.

With a stopwatch in his right hand and a yoke in his left hand, Nagy followed the red SUV, clocking it as the driver zipped passed pavement markers. In front of a bank of computer screens in the backseat, Edinger used a joystick to direct the camera to document the driver’s moves.

RELATED: DeWine wants stronger penalties for distracted driving in Ohio

Nagy radioed the information to Trooper Steven Shafer, who was sitting in a cruiser on the I-75 on-ramp. Shafer issued the motorist a ticket for driving 80 miles per hour and for following too closely — just 34 feet behind the car in front of him. The camera footage is preserved in case the driver disputes the citation in court.

“That was a good one — 34-feet at 80 miles per hour,” Nagy says as he banks the aircraft left, heading back into the enforcement zone.

“There’s definitely satisfaction in that. It’s always a great feeling when we get to call off a dangerous, reckless driver to a ground unit and they get them pulled off the road,” said Edinger, who has been flying for 20 years and joined the patrol 16 years ago.

The two pilots turned their attention to another one: a woman driving a silver four-door Cadillac sedan at 78 miles per hour, following 28 feet behind another car.

“The camera shows clearly what transpired today with our following too close violations. It’s hard to argue when it’s on video,” Edinger said. “It’s a helpful tool but it’s not a requirement.”

Ohio Highway Patrol Trooper Andrew Edinger operates a high-definition camera mounted to the belly of the patrol-owned Gipps Aero Airvan to capture moving violations that may indicate aggressive or distracted driving. STAFF
Photo: Columbus Bureau

RELATED: Ohio Highway Patrol highlight reel shows drunk drivers 24 hours of the day

It’s also a powerful tool. The Cadillac driver didn’t stop for nearly two miles so Edinger zoomed the camera in tight to watch Trooper Mark Murray make contact with her — just checking to make sure nothing went haywire. “You never let off your guard. You want to plan for the worst,” Edinger said.

State got new plane in January

The patrol took delivery on the $2.8 million Gipps Aero Airvan in January. It is used for surveillance, searches and traffic enforcement. From the aircraft, troopers can see the overall flow of traffic and immediately spot anything out of the ordinary. The pilots — and camera — document the tell-tale signs of aggressive or distracted driving: speeding, tailgating, weaving, slowing and speeding, abrupt stopping. Based on crash statistics, it is deployed to hot spots across Ohio.

Since 2014, there have been: 1.67 million traffic crashes in Ohio, including 5,716 fatalities, 39,038 serious injuries, 175,151 minor injuries and 1.25 million property damage-only collisions.

Forty-seven percent of the 5,716 fatal crashes involved aggressive driving, such as speeding, tailgating, or improper lane changes, according to the Patrol.

“We’re not out here to maximize the punishment on the public — it’s to change the behavior,” Nagy said.

At a rest stop on I-70 in Madison County, truck driver Carolyn Shoemaker, a former Dayton resident, said she sees aggressive and distracted driving on the roadways. “I see a lot. It’s bad — texting or looking at their phones when they’re going down the road. Yes, it’s bad. We’re not supposed to but there are times when I see someone texting, I honk my horn at them,” Shoemaker said.

New state law defines distracted driving

In October, lawmakers extended the definition of distracted to include any activity that is not necessary for the vehicle’s operation and that impairs the driver’s ability to drive safely. Eating, changing the radio station or using a cell phone could all result in a ticket. The citation comes with a $100 fine, which some motorists can avoid by taking a distracted driving class instead.

Distracted driving is under-reported because it’s difficult to prove, unless the officer sees it or the driver admits to it, according to the Ohio Distracted Driving Task Force report issued in April.

“Distracted drivers, while engaged in the behavior, exhibit similar behaviors to drunk drivers including slow reaction times, erratic speeds, weaving and sudden braking,” the report said.

Edinger said some people admit their distraction while others deny it. “They say ‘Oh, yeah, you got me.’ And they’re very apologetic and own up to the mistake. Others are very belligerent and didn’t think they were driving in that manner.”

He added, “It’s hard to argue what you see on the video.”

Dayton resident John Mixon, a retiree, said he drives 300 miles a week and sees impatient drivers tailgating and cutting off other motorists. He supports police use of cameras to ticket drivers. His message to the patrol? “Keep going. Write ‘em up!”

Staff writer Jim Otte contributed to this report.

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