COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A statewide texting-while-driving ban that could be tricky to enforce cleared the Ohio Legislature on Tuesday and was headed to the governor's desk for his expected signature.
The House cleared the measure on a 82-12 vote. The Senate passed it earlier this month.
All drivers would be banned from texting, but young drivers could more easily be pulled over for it.
Photo by Shelley Hanson
Ohio lawmakers have passed a bill banning the practice of sending text messages while driving.
That's fine by 17-year-old Salome Beneye of Columbus.
"It should be more strictly enforced toward teens," Beneye said in a phone interview. "I'm not saying it shouldn't toward adults as well, but I feel like teens have a better chance of getting in greater accidents than adults would."
Beneye, who's had her license since November, said she doesn't make phone calls or text while driving thanks in part to a series of pictures highlighting distracted driving accidents that were shown in her drivers' education class.
"It's really scary," she said. "No text or phone call is worth my life."
The bill would make texting with hand-held devices a secondary offense for adults. That means drivers could be ticketed for typing e-mails or instant messages only if they were first pulled over for another offense, such as running a red light.
The measure is tougher on teen drivers. Texting or using an electronic device while driving would be a primary offense for those under age 18. Minors could not use their cellphones, iPads, laptops or other electronic devices while driving unless there's an emergency.
Minors could be fined $150 for the first offense and have their license suspended for 60 days. Repeat offenders could face a $300 fine and get their license taken away for a year. Teens could have hands-free GPS navigation devices, but they couldn't use other electronic devices unless an emergency arises, or the vehicle was stopped and off the roadway.
The measure would be among the broadest in the country in terms of teen distracted driving restrictions, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Texting while driving is already prohibited in 38 states, the organization has found. An additional five states prohibit text messaging by new drivers.
Some states, such as such as Connecticut and Washington, also ban young or new drivers from using wireless devices even if it's hands-free.
Democrat Rep. Nancy Garland, the bill's co-sponsor, said it would make Ohio's roads safer. She recounted stories brought to her by constituents, fathers and wives whose relatives died from distracted drivers who were texting.
"It is time to end these tragedies," Garland, of New Albany, told her colleagues.
The Ohio Fraternal Order of Police supports the legislation. However, the group's president has said the organization would have preferred that texting be a primary offense for all drivers because it would have been easier to enforce.
"You're asking a law enforcement officer to determine at 30 mph whether someone is under 18 or not, so that's a challenge," said Jay McDonald, Ohio FOP president.
Still, McDonald said the measure is a good first step in cracking down on the problem of distracted driving among teens. "That's who we think are the most vulnerable drivers," he said in a recent interview.
The measure also gives officers an avenue to investigate whether texting has played a role in a crash or traffic accident, McDonald said. "It will enable us to get a warrant and look into it much more thoroughly than we did before."
Ohio's bill would make texting behind the wheel a misdemeanor for drivers, with possible fines of $150. The measure wouldn't trump city ordinances on texting or cellphone use that might be tougher.
The legislation is a weaker statewide texting ban than an earlier version that the House passed in June. That version had made texting a primary offense, but it didn't include the crackdown on teen drivers.
The switch to the secondary offense came amid concerns in the Senate about how the law would be enforced by authorities. Senators had wrangled with concerns about enforcement since the bill stalled in their chamber last fall.
Drivers would have a six-month grace period after the bill takes effect.
Law enforcement couldn't ticket or cite drivers for violations, but could issue a warning that provides information about the prohibitions on using electronics.
The bill provides a handful of exemptions for adults, including one that allows them to read and enter a name or number to make a phone call.