Sean O’Brien cosponsors smartphone bill

COLUMBUS — State Sen. Sean J. O’Brien is cosponsoring a bill from Gov. Mike DeWine to strengthen the state’s laws about using smartphones and other wireless devices while driving.

“We have no doubt that fatal crashes in Ohio have increased due to smartphone use,” said O’Brien, D-Bazetta. “Other states that have enacted hands-free laws have seen significant reductions in traffic fatalities and I’m confident that our Hands-Free Ohio bill will lead to more responsible driving all over the state.”

The Hands-Free Ohio bill allows law enforcement to charge someone with a traffic offense if a motorist is driving and using a wireless device at the same time. That includes making a phone call, texting, using an app, entering information into a GPS navigation program, watching or recording videos, and taking photos or looking at images.

The only exemptions in the bill are for using a device for emergency calls; while in a vehicle that’s not moving and outside of the lane of traffic; in hands-free mode to talk, dictate a text message or listen to messages; when an action can be done with a single swipe; by public safety officials or utility workers as needed for duties; and if wireless is a permanent feature of the vehicle.

The current law doesn’t permit law enforcement to make a traffic stop for a motorist for using a cellphone, and drivers can only be charged with texting as a secondary offense if they are pulled over for something such as running a red traffic light or speeding.

The fine for texting is up to $150.

This bill increases fines for drivers who are repeat offenders. In cases where a driver uses a wireless device and causes serious injury or death, the penalties are to be the same as those convicted of operating a vehicle while impaired.

O’Brien is cosponsoring the legislation with state Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hillard.

DeWine, a Republican, said that while the state’s existing 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.”

If approved, the bill includes an initial six-month grace period in which law enforcement would issue warnings for violations.