Ohio cracks down on distracted driving

Wireless device use limited beginning Aug. 31

Texting and a variety of other activities using wireless devices while driving will be illegal in Ohio starting Aug. 31. A new anti-texting law makes it illegal for anyone 18 years old or older to write, read or send a text communication while driving. The law for drivers under 18 is much stricter, imposing a nearly total ban on the use of wireless devices while driving.

The new laws have a six-month window during which offenders are to be given written warnings, but not cited. The window closes at the end of February 2013, when offenders can be ticketed. Like many traffic violations, texting while driving by adults will be a minor misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of $150. The penalty for those under 18 is a fine of $150 and a 60-day license suspension on a first offense, and increases to a $300 fine and a one-year suspension for a subsequent offense.

The restrictions are contained in two new sections of the Ohio Revised Code (4511.204 and 4511.205) and will apply while driving not only on public streets and highways, but also on private property, including parking lots and even driveways.

For adults, texting while driving will be a secondary offense, meaning an officer will have to have a primary reason other than a texting violation for stopping the driver. For those under 18, whether they hold a temporary or a probationary license, texting while driving will be a primary offense, justifying a stop and citation if observed by an officer.

Exceptions in the statute allow adults to use cell phones for emergency communications and voice-operated or hands-free devices. Other exceptions might not make as much sense, but are still allowed. For example, adult drivers may enter phone numbers into cell phones or manipulate navigation devices. Those activities could be as distracting as looking at a list of recent e-mails on a smartphone, an act that is illegal under the new laws.

Other than emergency communications and hands-free or voice operation of a device, the law allows the following for adults:

  • Using an electronic wireless communications device in the course of duties by the driver of a public safety vehicle. For example, an officer who, while driving, checks the license plate of a suspect's vehicle via a mobile data terminal. Note that an officer using his or her personal cell phone to text while driving would be in violation.
  • Any of the prohibited communications if the driver is in a parked vehicle, with the transmission in park or neutral or with the engine off, and while outside a lane of travel, such as a curbside parallel parking spot or parking lot.
  • Reading, selecting or entering a name or telephone number in an electronic wireless communications device for the purpose of making or receiving a telephone call, such as selecting a name from a contacts list in a cell phone.
  • Receiving wireless messages on a device regarding the operation or navigation of a motor vehicle; safety-related information, including emergency, traffic or weather alerts; or data used primarily by the motor vehicle, such as GPS tracking by a company's home base.
  • Receiving wireless messages via radio waves, such as radio instructions over a push-to-talk device.
  • Using a device for navigation purposes, such as a Garmin or TomTom navigation device.
  • Conducting wireless interpersonal communication with a device that does not require manually entering letters, numbers or symbols or reading text messages, except to activate, deactivate or initiate the device or a feature or function of the device. Examples include telling an iPhone to "call home" or dictating a text message.
  • Operating a commercial truck while using a mobile data terminal that transmits and receives data, such as one used by delivery drivers for commercial carriers such as UPS or FedEx.
  • Using a handheld electronic wireless communications device in conjunction with a voice-operated or hands-free device feature or function of the vehicle, such as Bluetooth in a vehicle.

For juveniles, the only exceptions are emergency communications, hands-free or voice-operated use of a navigation device and uses while in a parked vehicle.

The new statutes also allow municipalities to pass and enforce laws regarding wireless devices and driving with harsher penalties. Some already have enacted bans on talking on cell phones while driving, so drivers need to be alert. However, in many Ohio jurisdictions, the state's new anti-texting and anti-distraction laws will be the only limitations on the use of wireless devices while driving.

It will be interesting to follow whether stricter municipal ordinances, which could be confusing to motorists, hold up against court challenges, including if any ordinances differ with state law as to whether an offense is primary or secondary.

Furthermore, enforcement of anything short of an absolute prohibition on cell phone use might be difficult due to Ohio case law, which specifies that an officer must obtain either a search warrant or actual consent before examining an individual's cell phone for incriminating evidence, unless the search is necessary for officer safety or other circumstances requiring immediate action exist.

For motorists, the safe option is to avoid using wireless gadgets while driving.

—Michael E. Cicero