A little more than a year and a half after its introduction, an Ohio House measure allowing police to pull over drivers using their phones has moved out of committee.
Under current law texting and driving is a secondary offense, meaning police can cite a driver for it, but it can’t be the reason they pull over the driver. The proposal initially prohibited person from using, holding, or even “physically supporting” a cellphone while driving.
Two amendments brought forward Tuesday by state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, softened those restrictions. One makes it lawful to use a phone while at a complete stop. The other allows drivers to make a call while holding the phone to their ear.
“You don’t see through your ear, OK?” Seitz explained.
“If you’re fully stopped at a stoplight, why can’t you look at your phone? You’re not going anywhere,” he added. “And people say, ‘Well, yeah, but then when the light turns green, they’re still looking at their phone,’ and I say well that’s what horns are for.”
Long road to “fair”
The measure is notable for how long it has taken to advance, and how many supporters lined up in favor of its passage. Cities, law enforcement, insurance companies, highway safety and bicycling advocates all lined up to support the bill. Still it has trudged through committee, most recently coming up for a hearing last March.
The bill’s sponsors have direct, relevant experience with the issue, too. Rep Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison is a former police officer. Rep. Brian Lampton, R-Beavercreek, is an insurance agent.
Abrams joked lawmakers have been debating the idea since before she took office. She chalked up their slow progress to trying to land on a set of restrictions that are fair.
“Your first offense, we initially had, $150 fine and two points on the license,” she described. “And we decided, you know what, what’s fair is if you take a distracted driving course in lieu of your fine and points, that’s fair.”
“I’m not trying to punish anyone,” she went on. “The police are not trying to pull you over just to mess with you or write you tickets — they’re pulling you over to change your behavior.”
Mirroring legislation in other states, the bill carries provisions that require officers note the race of the drivers they ticket. The aim is to hopefully prevent, but at the very least track, racial profiling.
In Florida, for instance, The Sun Sentinel reported fears of new primary offenses disproportionately impacting communities of color were likely justified. In 2009, failing to wear a seatbelt became a primary offense, and they found Black drivers received tickets for those violations “at far higher rates than the Black population of a city would suggest.”
Ohio’s measure also has explicit prohibitions against a police officer searching a phone without a warrant or confiscating the phone while awaiting a warrant. The bill directs the officer to inform the driver of their right to decline a search of their phone.
With the bill gaining passage Tuesday, it’s now teed up for a hearing on the House floor Wednesday.
“We’ll see what happens in the Senate,” Abrams said. “We’re at halftime.”
This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.