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Mike Polk Jr. looks at Ohio's new distracted driving laws

That’s right. That thing you see absolutely everyone doing all around you in traffic all the time and that you’ve probably done too? That’s a crime now.

CLEVELAND — In an attempt to stop distracted driving, Governor Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 288 into law yesterday.

Among other provisions, the law allows police to stop drivers solely for “using, holding, or physically supporting” a cell phone while driving.

That’s right. That thing you see absolutely everyone doing all around you in traffic all the time and that you’ve probably done too? That’s a crime now.

In fact, some of you might actually be watching this on your phone while driving right now, and if so please stop. I refuse to be an accomplice in your street crimes. I’ll still be here when you get to your driveway.

According to the Ohio Highway Patrol distracted driving has contributed to almost 74 thousand crashes since 2017 and at least 31 fatal accidents just this past year.

Whether or not this new law will help remedy the issue remains to be seen, but it does include some rather extensive exemptions that could reduce the effectiveness of the legislation.

For example, using speakerphone is fine, as is using online navigation so long as your phone is mounted on the dash or console.

Drivers are also still permitted to do quick “one finger swipes” on their phone screens to do things like answer a call or change a music selection.

Additionally, holding a cellphone to your ear is allowed, but staring at a handheld phone is not.

You can still use your phone for texting while stopped on the side of the road, or, interestingly, just while stopped at a red light. 

There’s also an exemption that allows you full, legal use of your phone in the event of an emergency. A stipulation that seems ripe for abuse, in that what qualifies as an “emergency” is largely subjective. For example, what if I were to notice that the place where I just picked up my pizza forgot to include my garlic dipping sauce? Now that might not seem like an emergency to you but if you’ve ever tried to eat Papa John’s without that dipping sauce you understand that the situation is indeed quite dire.

Folks, I’m not trying to be flippant or dismissive in regards to the dangers of texting and driving, it is a real problem and I’m glad that we’re making some sort of effort to address it.

I also recognize that trying to strike a balance between safety and civil liberties is far from easy.

One group that does seem to be enthused about the new texting and driving ban is insurance companies.

A study from Nationwide, a major insurer based in Columbus revealed that states that have enacted similar legislation experienced between a 15% and 20% reduction in car crash related fatalities within two years of doing so. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

So, is this law perfect? Far from it. As we’ve established, there are some loopholes. But even if this just helps to get our state’s absolute worst distracted drivers under control, you know, the ones who are texting and driving while also doing their makeup in the rearview and eating a Panera Bread turkey wrap? If we can just deter THOSE people with this new ordinance, well I think that’s a swipe in the right direction.

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