Holding your phone, talking while you drive may become illegal

COLUMBUS — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine wants to stop people from talking, texting or watching videos with their phones in their hands as they drive.

A proposal to make it illegal is contained in his new budget bill, now undergoing hearings at the Statehouse. When the governor rolled out his plan he said it was time to increase driver safety on the road.

“Distracted driving is a choice that must be as culturally unacceptable as drunk driving is today, and strengthening our current laws will lead to more responsible driving,” DeWine said.

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The proposal would make it illegal to drive while talking on the phone with it in your hand. Only a hands-free device would be legal. Entering information into GPS and mapping programs would also be against the law, as would watching videos or TV.

Currently it is already illegal for people under 18 years old to text and drive and they can be pulled over by police for it. For adults it is also illegal, however, current state law considers it a “secondary offense,” meaning an officer cannot pull you over for it. They can give you a citation if you are pulled over for a different offense. DeWine’s proposal would make texting while driving a “primary offense” for everyone, regardless of age, meaning you could be pulled over if an officer sees you do it.

Distracted driving bills in past years generally received little outright opposition but did not pass the General Assembly for a variety of reasons. One plan last year was derailed when the COVID crisis hit and most sessions of the General Assembly were cancelled. Political strategist Curt Steiner, who represents the group Fix Our Roads Ohio, said DeWine’s move to put the plan in the state budget bill will put more focus on it, rather than have it be a separate bill in a pile of proposals awaiting action by the House and Senate.

“Now it’s at the top of the stack. It will get attention and a better chance of passing as a result,” Steiner said.

In the Fix Our Roads Ohio endorsement of DeWine’s proposal, Steiner said, “The time has come to pass and enact a “hands-free” law in Ohio, as 25 other states and the District of Columbia have done, which will reduce the number of needless injuries and deaths in our state.”

Likewise, the Ohio Laborer’s Council also voiced support for the distracted driving plan. In a written statement, Ralph E. Cole of the Laborer’s Council said “As Laborers, it is our job to build, maintain and improve Ohio’s infrastructure and that often puts us directly in the path of danger when drivers are distracted and the Hands Free Ohio provisions will have a direct positive impact on our members.” The group represents 20,000 people who work in road maintenance and construction statewide.