The Van Wert County Courthouse

Friday, Jan. 19, 2018

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

While Van Wert Law Director John Hatcher said a distracted driving bill before the Ohio General Assembly is a good start to deal with the problem, he also feels it doesn’t provide tough enough language to deal effectively with the problem.

With two fatalities and a serious injury accident occurring in this county just in the past 15 months — with at least one of those likely caused by distracted driving — the law director said more needs to be done to curtail the increasing incidents of distracted driving in the county, and across Ohio.

The problem is that more and more drivers are driving with cell phones to their ear, or — even worse — texting and driving. In essence, the distracted driving issue is a downside of the communication revolution. While phones and other electronic devices, such as stand-alone GPS devices, are becoming increasingly sophisticated, too many people are also using them inappropriately — especially while driving.

In addition, GPS technology, while improving rapidly, can still send drivers onto side roads with safety issues. GPS is then a distraction, as drivers try to find a better route.

Hatcher said he has discussed the distracted driving issue with Kirk Slusher, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Transportation’s District 1, based in Lima, as well as the proposed legislation with State Representative Craig Riedel.

The law director said Slusher confirmed that fatal accidents are increasing across the state, with more and more of accidents suspected to be a result of distracted driving, but the ODOT deputy director also noted that efforts by ODOT to build in highway safety measures, such as “rumble strips” that warn drivers when they’re crossing the center line or veering off onto the berm, only go so far.

Hatcher said ODOT is looking at installing lighted stop signs and other safety measures, but noted that Slusher, while saying Ohio highways are the safest they’ve ever been, also admits there is only so much ODOT can do to keep Ohioans safe on the state’s highways.

Hatcher said the bill now before the General Assembly would treat distracted driving as a secondary offense. That means drivers could only be cited for distracted driving issues if they are stopped for another offense, such as speeding. As proposed, fines would also be fairly modest: $100 or less.

“While I applaud the (General Assembly’s) attempt to address the issue, I don’t know how effective it’s going to be,” Hatcher said, noting that, while legislators’ hearts are in the right place, he feels they need to go further in dealing with distracted driving.

Hatcher said the proposed legislation would also make it difficult for prosecutors to prove drivers were distracted.

“While we often suspect that distracted driving is an issue in an accident, the issue becomes how can you prove it?” the law director said. He explained that, to cite drivers now, as well as under the proposed bill, there almost needs to be a witness to prove a driver was on a cell phone or other device at the exact time of an accident.

As it stands now, the law director said law enforcement officials immediately do two things while investigating a fatal or serious injury accident: screen the driver for alcohol or drugs and seek a warrant for the driver’s cell phone.

However, Hatcher admitted that, while obtaining a driver’s cell phone can often provide good information on whether an app was active at the time of the accident, the problem is that apps can often be running in the background, but a driver not be using them.

“Right now, distracted driving is very hard to prove,” the law director said.

In addition, because there is no current Ohio Revised Code language now dealing with distracted driving, prosecutors are forced to use a “work-around”, often charging drivers under another offense, such as reckless operation.

However, Hatcher said grand juries are sometimes reluctant to indict someone when there is nothing in the statutes now that prohibits distracted driving by adults. He said a couple of grand juries have decided the argument that distracted driving is, in fact, reckless operation is a “bridge too far” for them to indict on.

The law director said he feels the General Assembly should look at similar bills in states, such as New York, that have had distracted driving laws for more than a decade. Those laws make it much easier to prove the offense, because they typically ban the use of all handheld devices while driving.

Hatcher said it’s a lot easier to prove someone was using a handheld device while driving, than it is to have to prove a devise was distracting them enough to cause an accident.

The law director said he also feels distracted driving should be increased in severity to an “aggravated” offense, such as driving under a license suspension — something he feels is not nearly as dangerous as distracted driving. Is that was done, penalties could include having people’s driver’s licenses suspended if they caused an accident while using a cell phone or other handheld device.

Hatcher also looks at the Mothers Against Drunk Driving grassroots campaign that has been so effective in dealing with drunk driving as an example of how to positively affect legislation. A couple of decades ago, blood-alcohol levels were 1.5 percent in Ohio, while today’s BAC is nearly half that. Alcohol-related OVI citations are also down dramatically compared to 20 years ago, he noted.

Hatcher noted that the proposed bill, while a step in the right direction, will probably have to be tweaked a few times before it adequately deals with the distracted driving problem.

“The issue is on everybody’s minds,” Hatcher said.

Meanwhile, the law director said that dealing with suspected distracted driving cases has had a profound effect on his own driving habits, with Hatcher saying he does not take phone calls or answer texts while driving.

“If you call and I’m in the car, I’m not answering the phone,” Hatcher said. “You text me, I’m not responding.”

Some cell phone manufacturers are also trying to give customers ways to avoid having to drive distracted. Apple Inc.’s new mobile software now gives people the option of disabling their phone while driving, eliminating potential distractions.

POSTED: 09/13/17 at 8:38 am. FILED UNDER: News