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Last summer, Ohio state legislators passed a new law that banned texting while driving.
But how effective is the ban?
It’s only a secondary offense for adults, which means an officer can only cite a driver for it if they pull them over for another reason. Because of that, police have not issued very many citations since the law took effect earlier this year.
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, said he and other lawmakers are hoping to make texting while driving a primary offense in Ohio, meaning an officer could pull someone over if they see them doing it.
“There’s a lot of ways around it. The officer can’t really see that you just sent a text message or what you’re doing on your cell phone,” he said.
But Schiavoni said the law is not just about writing tickets. He said it is about raising awareness and changing behaviors.
“Look at how many people were wearing seat belts 15 years ago, less than 50 percent wore them, but now almost everybody does. It’s just changing behavior and that’s what we’re trying to do with texting and driving,” Schiavoni said.
At least one person has changed her behavior, but not because of the law.
Clarice Edinger was 19 and studying to be a nurse when she had the scare of her life in February of 2010. Edinger had left class and was driving down a stretch of Route 158 in New Wilmington when she decided to send her friend a text message.
“I was like, how could I be so stupid?,” Edinger said.
When she reached a certain stretch of the road, she looked up from her phone and saw a milk truck coming right at her.
Edinger was lucky. She walked away with a broken collarbone and some bumps and bruises, and the other driver was not hurt.
“We’re young. We don’t think about how it could all end like that, until something crazy tragic happens and you realize you’re lucky to be here. There’s a reason I’m here. I’m not sure what it is,” Edinger said.
But Edinger, who is now 22, said she no longer texts and drives. And every year on the anniversary of that crash, she posts a reminder not to text and drive on her Facebook page.
“It’s stupid. Just wait. And get there and then you can text whoever. Or if it’s that important, call them. Do something, don’t text them,” she said.
All it takes is a few minutes of watching traffic to see just how many people aren’t focused on the road.
Sgt. Michael Wilson with the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Canfield post said they haven’t issued very many citations for texting while driving because it’s hard to determine what someone is doing on their phone.
“I believe if it was a primary offense, people would be less likely to use their phone. That would give us a lot more force behind that law to take enforcement action,” Wilson said. “It would give a little more bite to that law.”
But he and Schiavoni both agree that a complete ban on all hand-held devices would be even easier to enforce.
Schiavoni said legislators are on the fence on the issue of banning all hand-held devices because there is a delicate balance between personal freedom and making the roads safer for the public. He said the law in its current form requires an officer to jump through too many hoops, which is why not many citations have been issued.
“Well I think that it’s much easier to enforce a total cell phone ban because all the officer has to see is if somebody is using a cell phone, not figure out if they’re using it, then how old they are and then what they’re doing with it,” Schiavoni said. “As long as you’ve got it in your hand, then the officer would be able to write a ticket for that offense.”
Wilson said a total ban would enable officers to make a traffic stop before anything negative happens.
“As a result of distracted driving, we’ve seen severe injury crashes and fatal crashes,” he said. “I don’t think they do understand it or they wouldn’t commit that violation and use the phone as much as they do. They’re distracted, their attention is away from the road, and that’s only gonna lead to bad things.”
The closest community to the Valley that has a complete ban on hand-held devices is Beachwood near Cleveland, where traffic officers said they have noticed a difference. Drivers caught using their phone for any reason are given a ticket for $100.
One police sergeant said before Beachwood passed the ordinance, he would be out directing traffic and would count the number of drivers that he would see in groups of 10, and at the time about 50 percent were on a cell phone talking. He said more recently, he has noticed that number is more like one in 10.
It could be some time before we see a similar statewide ban. But for now, the goal is to make sure drivers are focused on the road, and nothing else.