Paul E. Kostyu reports
f you drive in Ohio, get ready to put away your cell phones, iPads and other electronic devices, especially if you’re a teenager. There will be no texting on the state’s roads and highways when a text ban is signed by Gov. John R. Kasich.
But enforcing a ban is almost impossible for law enforcement agencies and similar local bans already in place haven’t been effective. Adults will still be able talk on the phone and the text ban allows a number of exceptions for using hand-held devices, even for teens.
The passage of the legislation comes in the shadow of the death of a Colerain High School student and her exchange student passenger on May 3. She may have been texting just before she ran a stop sign in rural Milford Township and slammed into a tractor trailer.
The Ohio House approved on a 82-12 vote Tuesday the Senate’s changes to House Bill 99, sending the legislation to the governor. Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich, said the governor will sign the measure.
ENFORCEMENT OF BANS IS DIFFICULT
Cincinnati has had a texting ban since October 2010. It outlaws sending, reading or writing a text message or accessing the Internet while driving. A violation is a minor misdemeanor and is punishable by a fine up to $150.
As of Tuesday, 15 people had been charged with driving while texting in the city, according to Charlie Rubenstein, the city’s chief criminal solicitor. Columbus also has a texting ban and 100 people were ticketed in the past two years.
Since Jan. 1, Kentucky law enforcement handed out 144 citations, nine in Northern Kentucky, since the state’s new law went into effect.
The Ohio Fraternal Order of Police supported HB 99, but Jay McDonald, the group’s president, said the organization preferred that texting be a primary offense for all drivers, because that would have made the law easier to enforce.
A primary offense means police could stop all drivers for texting instead of trying distinguish who is a teen and who’s an adult. Texting while driving is a secondary offense for adults. That means some other violation must have occurred, such as running a red light, before police can stop the vehicle.
Still, McDonald called the law 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.
GOAL IS TO CHANGE DRIVERS’ BEHAVIOR
According to the Ohio Highway Patrol, 31,231 crashes occurred across Ohio over the past three years because of distracted drivers. The distractions were not spelled out. Of the crashes, 74 were fatal and 7,825 caused injuries.
Police say it is difficult to charge drivers with texting unless they are seen using their hand-held device. That can be difficult when vehicles are moving at a pretty good clip. After a crash, police could subpoena phone records to see if a driver was using his or her cell phone at the time of the accident.
Lt. Anne Ralston, a spokeswoman for the Patrol, said enforcement of the text ban, when it becomes law, will rest on the discretion of officers.
She said troopers sometimes warn drivers and try to educate them about driving safely.
“Our goal is to change behavior,” she said.
Caleb Adler, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati, said the impact of law enforcement stopping a car is greater than a trooper educating the driver about dangerous behavior.
“People already know texting and driving is dangerous,” he said. “It’s just like smoking or not using seat belts. People know both are dangerous.”
According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 94 percent of drivers see texting as a serious threat. The 2011 survey also found that 87 percent of drivers favor texting bans even though a third admitted to reading a text or emails while driving.
Adler said whether a person gets a $150 ticket or not, it’s the threat of the ticket that is a powerful reinforcement to change behavior.
BILL WAS A BIPARTISAN EFFORT
HB 99, which was co-introduced by a Fremont Republican and Columbus Democrat, received widespread bipartisan support including from House and Senate leaders.
Ohio joins 43 other states that have some form of texting ban, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. No state bans all cell phone use by all drivers.
In Kentucky, drivers can’t write, send or read text-based communication, including text messages, instant messages and email, using a personal communication device.
Enquirer reporter Kimball Perry, intern Laurence Baibak and the Associated Press contributed.