COLUMBUS - Ohio Governor Mike DeWine today announced details of a new bill that will strengthen Ohio's laws regarding the use of wireless devices, including smartphones, while driving.
The new Hands-Free Ohio bill is sponsored by Sen. Stephanie Kunze (R-Hilliard) and Sen. Sean J. O'Brien (D-Bazetta).
"The use of wireless devices while driving has become so common that many drivers don't stop to consider the deadly consequences," said Governor DeWine. "Although Ohio's current 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."
With limited exceptions, the Hands-Free Ohio bill will make driving while handling any electronic wireless device a primary offense. This includes, but is not limited to, writing, sending, or reading text-based communications; watching or recording videos; taking photos or looking at images; livestreaming; using apps; entering information into GPS navigation programs; dialing phone numbers; or holding a device for a phone call.
Currently, using a hand-held electronic wireless communications device to write, send, or read a text-based communication while driving is a secondary offense for adult drivers (ORC 4511.204). Law enforcement cannot make a traffic stop unless the driver also commits a primary traffic offense, such as running a red light. The penalty is a fine of up to $150.
The Hands-Free Ohio bill will increase fines for drivers who habitually use devices while driving. In cases where a driver using a device causes serious injury or death, the penalties will mirror those of drunken driving.
"We must make the use of wireless devices behind the wheel as unacceptable as drinking and driving is today, and we believe that tougher consequences will be a strong deterrent," said Sen. Stephanie Kunze. "The purpose of this bill is not to make more traffic stops or put more people in jail, it's to get drivers to put down their phones so that people stop getting hurt."
According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, traffic fatalities on Ohio roads have increased in five of the past six years. Provisional data shows that 2019 was the second-deadliest year of the past decade with at least 1,157 people killed in Ohio traffic crashes.
"We have no doubt that fatal crashes in Ohio have increased due to smartphone use," said Sen. Sean J. O'Brien. "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."
Exemptions in the bill include using hand-held wireless devices for emergency calls; while in a stationary vehicle outside of the lane of traffic; in hands-free mode to talk on the phone, dictate text-based messages, or listen to received messages; in circumstances where an action can be accomplished with only a single swipe; in public safety or utility professions, as necessary for duties; or if the wireless feature is a permanent part of the vehicle.
Additionally, the bill permits drivers to use GPS devices for navigation, however, destinations must be entered before driving begins and the device cannot be held or supported with the body.
To help educate drivers on the changes in the law, the Hands-Free Ohio bill includes a provision directing law enforcement to issue warnings for violations during the first six months following the signing of the bill. The Ohio Department of Transportation will also install road signs to alert drivers from other states to Ohio's regulations.
The Hands-Free Ohio bill is another step in Governor DeWine's overall goal to improve the safety of Ohio's roads. Upon taking office last year, Governor DeWine learned that Ohio was facing an impending crisis of dangerous, crumbling roadway infrastructure throughout the state; he secured funding in the transportation budget to maintain, improve, and repair roads all over Ohio. In addition, because unintentional motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death for teenagers and young adults in Ohio, Governor DeWine launched the new "Ready, Test, Drive!" virtual driver assessment program to more accurately assess new drivers' road readiness and help identify skills needing improvement.