Surrounded by family members of those killed by drivers distracted by cellphones, Gov. John Kasich yesterday made Ohio the 39th state to ban texting while driving.
The new law, which takes effect in 90 days, also bans drivers younger than 18 from using any hand-held electronic device, whether to text, make a call or do anything else.
“This is why we are doing this,” Kasich said, sitting behind the desk in his ceremonial office, holding a photo of 23-year-old Keith Homstad Jr. in his right hand and a photo of 16-year-old Dalton Ludwig in his left.
“These families are finding some relief by doing something constructive to help others,” he added. “It’s a hard road back, folks, when you don’t have a dad, when you lose your only son, when your soldier son is killed on leave. This helps them to heal.”
Homstad, of Johnstown, was killed while on leave from the Air Force in August 2010. He was a passenger in a car driven by a 19-year-old woman who prosecutors argued was texting — though a judge said that was not proved.Keith Homstad Sr. called the law a good first step, but he would have rather seen texting made a primary driving offense for adults, instead of a secondary offense. A secondary offense means an officer must first pull over a driver for something else, such as speeding.
“If anything, maybe it will create a mindset. If 50 percent of the folks adhere to it, there is a 50 percent greater chance of a life being saved,” Homstad said.
Ludwig, of Pickerington, was a student driver sitting in a parked car along the shoulder of I-270 in July 2010 when he was struck and killed by a man who was texting. His father, Phillip, said the new law will be tough to enforce but “I think it’s a good educational tool to use” for young adults who think they can multitask behind the wheel.
The law is a primary offense for minors punishable by a $150 fine and 60-day license suspension for a first offense, and a $300 fine and one-year suspension for repeat violations.
For the first 60 days after the bill takes effect, drivers will be issued warnings instead of tickets. The bill also bans emailing while driving.
The bill’s sponsors, Reps. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont, and Nancy Garland, D-New Albany, also wanted a violation to be a primary offense for all drivers, as is done in 35 other states.
But Senate Republicans refused. Some were concerned about infringing on personal freedoms, trying to legislate common sense and passing a law that is very difficult to enforce.
The law does allow local texting bans to supersede state law if they make it a primary offense.
“For those people who might think this is somehow an invasion of your rights or nanny state or whatever, come meet these families,” Kasich said, talking to the media after an emotional private meeting with the victims’ relatives, many of whom pressed lawmakers into action.
Kasich’s parents were killed by a drunken driver, and though he called the texting law an “ incredible achievement,” he said he would have been fine if it were tougher.
“If that driver could have turned back the hands of time and avoided this death that he caused, I’m sure he would have done it,” Kasich said, adding that the same is true of the texters who caused more recent deaths.
Kasich said law enforcement will enforce the law aggressively. He also said there may be more education on texting at the Ohio State Fair, and he has talked to his transportation director about erecting billboards.
“If we continue to see a problem, we’ll come back,” he said.
Garland has noted that drivers who text, according to studies, are 20 times more likely to get in a crash or near-crash and can drive the length of a football field without looking up at the road when going 55 mph.
AT&T applauded the law. In May, the company released a survey of 1,200 drivers ages 15-19 showing that while 97 percent viewed texting while driving as dangerous, 43 percent admitted to doing it, and 61 percent said their friends text and drive.
AT&T is among those that offer an app to shut off a phone’s texting function while a person is driving.