Statewide texting ban, teen rules sent to Ohio gov

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A statewide texting-while-driving ban that could be tricky to enforce cleared the Ohio Legislature on Tuesday and was headed to the governor's desk for his expected signature.

The House cleared the measure on a 82-12 vote. The Senate passed it earlier this month.

All drivers would be banned from texting, though young drivers could more easily be pulled over for it.

The bill would make texting with hand-held devices a secondary offense for adults. That means drivers could be ticketed for typing emails or instant messages only if they were first pulled over for another offense, such as running a red light.

Democratic Rep. Nancy Garland, the bill's co-sponsor, said it would make Ohio's roads safer. She recounted stories brought to her by constituents, fathers and wives whose relatives died from distracted drivers who were texting.

"It is time to end these tragedies," Garland, of New Albany, told her colleagues.

Teens could not use their cellphones, iPads or other electronic devices while driving unless there's an emergency.

The Ohio Fraternal Order of Police supports the legislation. However, the group's president has said the organization would have preferred that texting be a primary offense for all drivers because it would have been easier to enforce.

"You're asking a law enforcement officer to determine at 30 mph whether someone is under 18 or not, so that's a challenge," said Jay McDonald, Ohio FOP president.

Still, McDonald said the measure is a good first step in cracking down on the problem of distracted driving among teens. "That's who we think are the most vulnerable drivers," he said.

The measure would make texting or using an electronic device while driving a primary offense for those under age 18.

Minors could be fined $150 for the first offense and have their license suspended for 60 days. Repeat offenders could face a $300 fine and get their license taken away for a year. Teens could have hands-free GPS navigation devices, but they couldn't use other electronic devices unless an emergency arises, or the vehicle was stopped and off the roadway.

The measure would be among the broadest in the country in terms of teen distracted driving restrictions, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Texting while driving is already prohibited in 38 states, the organization has found. An additional five states prohibit text messaging by new drivers.

Some states, such as such as Connecticut and Washington, also ban young or new drivers from using wireless devices even if it's hands-free.

Ohio's bill would make texting behind the wheel a misdemeanor for drivers, with possible fines of $150. The measure wouldn't trump city ordinances on texting or cellphone use that might be tougher.

The bill is a weaker statewide texting ban than an earlier version that the House passed in June. That version had made texting a primary offense, but it didn't include the crackdown on teen drivers.

The switch to the secondary offense came amid concerns in the Senate about how the law would be enforced by authorities. Senators had wrangled with concerns about enforcement since the bill stalled in their chamber last fall.

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