THURBER: Ohio lawmakers save drivers from our own stupidity

By   /   May 16, 2012  /   No Comments

By Maggie Thurber | Ohio Watchdog

Maggie Thurber

“Useless laws weaken necessary laws.” ~ Charles-Louis de Secondat

I could not help but think of this quote when I heard Tuesday that a bill banning texting while driving in Ohio had been sent to Gov. John Kasich for his signature.

It’s not that you shouldn’t text and drive — clearly that’s an extremely bad idea, and dangerous, too.

It’s that Ohio already has a law against distracted driving that would easily cover this action. It’s Ohio Revised Code (ORC) 4511.20, Operation in willful or wanton disregard of the safety of persons or property, which states:

“No person shall operate a vehicle, trackless trolley, or streetcar on any street or highway in willful or wanton disregard of the safety of persons or property.”

This is an escalating misdemeanor, which means that the penalty increases if you previously have pleaded or been found guilty of other traffic violations within a specific time frame.

But apparently that’s not enough to stop people from doing stupid things, so the politicians have to create new laws to accommodate all stupid things people do while driving — well, except for putting on makeup, shaving, eating, reading a newspaper or playing with your dog on your lap. There are no laws banning those specific dangerous actions.

House Bill 99 makes it a misdemeanor for an adult to drive while using a handheld electronic communications device to write, send, or read a text-based communication. If you’re under the age of 18, the law bans the use of any electronic device while driving, except a GPS, and is a primary offense, meaning that teens can be stopped and ticketed solely for this violation.

There are some exceptions, including using a device for emergency purposes (contacting law enforcement, fire department, hospital or doctor) or for navigation. It doesn’t apply if your vehicle is stopped and not in a “lane of travel.”

It also doesn’t count if you’re an adult entering a name or phone number in order to make a phone call. As Sen. Tom PattenR-District 24, said, you “can still get on the phone and make that quick phone call, but you can’t make a quick text.”

But for some, making a call can be as distracting and dangerous as texting — so why not just use ORC 4511.20?

Another exemption is if you’re receiving weather or traffic alerts via text. That last is especially important to exclude since government agencies are sending out many of those communications.

Law enforcement officers who use mobile data terminals and perform other types of texting operations in the course of their duties are exempt. One rule for us — another for the watchers.

Upsetting many of the advocates of such bills, and unlike for teens, texting while driving is not going to be a primary offense — meaning you can’t be stopped just for texting and cannot be ticketed unless another traffic citation is also issued. At least, that’s the way it stands now.  The requirement to wear a seat belt used to be a secondary offense and is now a primary one. How long do you think it will be before the texting ban is moved into that category?

Sen. Shirley SmithD-District 21, explained that this is a “necessary matter of public safety”, adding that it was not about taking away your freedoms but a bill to change behaviors. Evidently, there is no freedom to be stupid, so you must be saved from yourself.

The problem is, these bans don’t actually address the problem. The Highway Loss Data Institute found no reductions in crashes following the implementation of texting bans.

“Texting bans haven’t reduced crashes at all. In a perverse twist, crashes increased in 3 of the 4 states we studied after bans were enacted. It’s an indication that texting bans might even increase the risk of texting for drivers who continue to do so despite the laws,” says Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

HLDI’s new findings about texting, together with the organization’s previous finding that hand-held phone bans didn’t reduce crashes, “call into question the way policymakers are trying to address the problem of distracted driving crashes,” Lund adds.

So why do it?

Sen. Charleta TavaresD-District 15, resorted to emotion in expressing her support saying, “If we can save one life, one child, one adult, one family, that goes far enough for me.”

The old ‘if it saves one life’ claim while giving up all your liberties and freedoms along the way.

Many cities in Ohio already have texting bans. In my home of Toledo, for instance, texting while driving is a primary offense and has a fine of up to $1,000 and a maximum sentence of six months in jail. The new state law does not override local laws.

But despite the comments about how important it is to pass this law and how necessary it is for the safety of the public, the law won’t be in effect for the first six months, as the summary of the bill explains:

“For the six-month period commencing on the bill’s effective date, no law enforcement officer may issue to the operator of any motor vehicle being operated upon a street or highway within this state a ticket, citation, or summons for violating either of the prohibitions created by the bill, and no officer may cause the arrest of or commence a prosecution of a person for such a violation. Instead, during that period of time the law enforcement officer must issue to such an operator a written warning, informing the operator of the existence of the prohibition and that after the date that is six months after the bill’s effective date, a law enforcement officer who observes that the operator of a motor vehicle has committed or is committing a violation of either prohibition will be authorized to issue a ticket, citation, or summons to that operator for that violation or to cause the arrest of or commence a prosecution of such an operator for a violation of that prohibition.”

Yes, you read that correctly. They’re going to issue warnings for the first six months the law is in effect. So much for ‘saving just one life.’

This new law isn’t going to reduce accidents nor will it stop distracted driving. People who send texts while driving, just like those who drink and drive, aren’t going to stop just because it’s now illegal.

But those politicians will surely feel good about themselves, supposedly saving us from our stupidity while having something to brag about in the next election cycle.