Governor unveils ‘Hands-Free Ohio Bill’ aimed at cracking down on distracted driving

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WJW) — Ohio Governor Mike DeWine unveiled a new bill Thursday aimed at reducing distracted driving.

If signed into law, the new Hands-Free Ohio Bill, sponsored by Sen. Stephanie Kunze (R-Hilliard) and Sen. Sean J. O’Brien (D-Bazetta), will strengthen the state’s laws regarding the use of wireless devices, including smartphones, while driving. 

The bill will make driving while handling any electronic wireless device a primary offense. This includes, but is not limited to the following offenses:

  • Writing, sending, or reading text-based communications
  • Watching or recording videos
  • Taking photos or looking at images
  • Livestreaming
  • Using apps
  • Entering information into GPS navigation programs
  • Dialing phone numbers
  • Holding a device for a phone call.  

DeWine says distracted driving has gotten out of hand and argues that the state’s current laws do not sufficiently protect Ohioans.

“The use of wireless devices while driving has become so common that many drivers don’t stop to consider the deadly consequences. Although Ohio’s current laws are well-intended, they simply haven’t gone far enough to change the culture around using technology behind the wheel. By strengthening Ohio’s laws, we believe we can change behaviors, prevent crashes, and save lives.”

Governor Mike DeWine, Feb. 13, 2020

Currently, distracted driving — including texting, making calls or surfing the internet while driving — is considered a secondary offense for drivers over 18, meaning police must have another reason to pull someone over.

The proposed Hands-Free Ohio Bill would upgrade distracted driving to a primary offense, meaning it should be reason enough to pull someone over in Ohio.

The bill also increases increase fines for drivers who habitually use their devices while driving. In cases where a driver using a device causes serious injury or death, the penalties will mirror those of drunken driving. 

The proposed bill offers few exceptions for hand-held wireless usage, including:

  • Using hand-held wireless devices for emergency calls
  • While in a stationary vehicle outside of the lane of traffic
  • In hands-free mode to talk on the phone, dictate text-based messages, or listen to received messages
  • In circumstances where an action can be accomplished with only a single swipe
  • In public safety or utility professions, as necessary for duties
  • If the wireless feature is a permanent part of the vehicle.

The bill does permit drivers to use their GPS devices for navigation, however, it does require that destinations be entered before driving begins. The device also cannot be held or supported by the driver’s body.

To help educate drivers on the changes in the law, the Hands-Free Ohio bill does include a provision directing law enforcement to issue warnings for violations during the first six months following the signing of the bill.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is also expected to install road signs to alert drivers from other states to Ohio’s regulations. 

Governor DeWine says the bill is just another step in his overall goal to improve Ohio’s road.

According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, traffic fatalities on Ohio roads have increased in five of the past six years, with provisional data showing that 2019 was the second-deadliest year of the past decade.

The use of smartphones while driving is believed to be a contributing factor in the increase of fatal crashes.

Due to the fact that unintentional motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death for teenagers and young adults in Ohio, DeWine also launched new “Ready, Test, Drive!” virtual driver assessment program to more accurately assess new drivers’ road readiness and help identify skills needing improvement.

The Governor also says he plans to improve overall road safety by addressing dangerous, crumbling roadway infrastructure throughout the state and by securing funding to maintain, improve and repair Ohio’s roads.

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