Letter of the law

Drivers beware: The six-month grace period designed to allow motorists to get used to the state’s new ban on texting while driving expired last week.

Meaning, texting while behind the wheel is officially illegal in Ohio.

Still, some safety proponents are concerned motorists, especially teenagers, won’t get the message until it’s too late.

“I think most people, including teenagers, believe the statistics about distracted driving that show how dangerous it is,” said Tyler Wolfe, 19, of Cortland. “But a lot of kids still have that mindset that ‘this will never happen to me.'”

Wolfe admits he’s been tempted to text while driving. However, he explained he also sees the value of keeping his cell phone at a distance when he’s behind the wheel and encouraging his peers to do likewise.

Wolfe is a former participant of the Students Making a Safer Highway (S.M.A.S.H.) program, of which he now serves as an adult adviser. He said that although the program looks at all areas of distracted driving, texting is a high priority.

“You can pass laws, and even enforce them, but no one can convince a teenager of the importance of practicing safer driving than another teenager,” said Wolfe.

The ban on writing, sending or reading a text message while behind the wheel went into effect in late August.

The law, signed by Gov. John Kasich in June, made texting while driving a secondary traffic offense for adults, meaning they can be cited only if they have been stopped for another traffic violation.

For younger drivers, the new law is more strict.

Motorists younger than 18 are prohibited from using any wireless electronic device – such as a cell phone, smart phone, laptop computer or computer tablet – while driving, and rather than it being a secondary offense, the new law makes it a primary offense.

The law makes texting while driving a minor misdemeanor. A juvenile caught using a wireless device while driving faces up to a $150 fine and 60-day license suspension on the first offense. For subsequent offenses, the fine is $300 and the license suspension is for one year.

No tickets were given during the grace period. Rather, police gave warnings and information on the ban.

Local police agencies reported that texting while driving, even among teens, hasn’t been a major issue.

“Obviously, we haven’t had any fatalities related to texting in the city, or crashes, at least that we can specifically attribute to texting and driving,” said Warren police Chief Timothy Bowers. “It’s not really an issue that has come up much. But like every law we’ll work to the best of our ability to enforce it.”

Ohio State Highway Patrol Trooper Lauren Merz said proving a crash is related to texting can be difficult.

“It’s very similar of what you would have with an impaired driver,” Merz said. “You see unusual crashes where you wouldn’t think any normal person would do this, like falling asleep, driving a certain way. You suspect something was going on. … But teenagers aren’t stupid. They know ways to not get caught or to at least lessen their chances.”

Students taking a driving class Sunday at All Star Driving School in Howland said they have been in cars in which drivers were texting. Each of the students said they recognized the dangers and have spoken up to the peers about the habit.

Justin Lane, 15, of Leavittsburg, said he has seen a friend of his frequently texting while driving.

“I spoke with him about it, but he says he’s very confident about his ability,” Lane said.

Trent Cunningham, 17, of Vienna, said he saw a friend hit a deer while he was texting and driving.

“He messed up the car’s grill,” Cunningham said. “The airbag deployed. My friend was smoking a cigarette at the time and it got lodged in his throat by the force of the airbag.

The deer was then hit by a truck that was driving in the opposite direction, he said.

Maya Bell, 16, of Warren, described having to watch the road while riding with a friend who was texting and driving.

“I was trying to be safe,” she said.

Merz said protocol in some crash cases is to send cell phones recovered from crash scenes to a crime lab to determine whether the driver was texting. However, because of privacy issues a warrant is needed to allow investigators to retrieve information on a cell phone, she added.

“The sad thing is when you realize a death or injury could have been avoided,” she said.

Lt. Brian Holt, commander of the Warren OSP post in Southington, said there have been crashes in Trumbull County where drivers said they were distracted.

“But fortunately, there have been no fatal crashes that we can conclusively say resulted from texting while driving.”

Another provision in the law requires driver education courses to include classroom instruction on the dangers of driving while texting.

“It’s one of those cases where everyone denies doing it, yet they do it,” said Greg Anderson of All Star Driving School. “We discuss it in class and I think people are well aware of it.”

There are several exemptions to the law.

Drivers can text and use their cell phones in an emergency and when the vehicle is stopped and off the road. Adult drivers cannot be cited for typing in a number or a name to make a call.

Also, only adult drivers can still use hands-free devices, like those that allow voice-operated texts and adults and teens can use hands-fee GPS devices, but teens are prohibited from manipulating them while driving.

Tribune Chronicle reporter Raymond L. Smith contributed to this report.