With fatal crashes on the rise, will Ohio legislators take action?

By: - January 7, 2020 1:00 am

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by “Mister Upstate.”

Somewhere in Ohio, there was a crash in the past hour involving distracted driving. In all likelihood, there will be one in the next hour. 

That is the reality in Ohio, where since 2014 there has been an average of one distracted driving crash every 40 minutes about the time it takes to watch a full-length TV show on Netflix. 

Vehicles themselves are safer than ever, yet the number of crashes remain high. The number of crash deaths in Ohio went up in 2019, the fourth increase in the past five years. 

Such is the traffic safety landscape faced by state legislators as they head back to work in 2020 to conclude the 133rd General Assembly’s two-year term. The major transportation bill and the institution of a gas tax last year put the focus on Ohio’s infrastructure. Now, legislators turn their attention to a number of other bills which seek to make our roadways safer.

Crashes are inevitable in a state of nearly 12 million residents, though the numbers are still staggering. The Ohio State Highway Patrol reported a total of 281,838 crashes in 2019. This figure includes everything from major collisions causing injury to harmless fender benders.

Of that amount, 990 crashes killed a total of 1,154 people, the Patrol reported. That’s an increase from 1,068 people who died in 2018. 

The Capital Journal has requested information from the Patrol as to how many of Ohio’s 990 fatal crashes in 2019 involved distracted driving and how many took place on two-way, undivided highways. 

A WBNS report from mid-December reported there were 118 fatal crashes caused by left-of-center driving to that point. 

Crashes in 2020 are already being reported. In Ottawa County near Lake Erie, two people were injured Sunday after a driver went left-of-center on a state highway and struck another vehicle. On the same highway in the same county, an 82-year-old man died last week from injuries sustained in a similar head-on crash.

Legislators are considering a bill that would install center line rumble strips on all of Ohio’s undivided, two-lane highways. Supporters say the rumble strips would prevent left-of-center crashes caused by distracted driving. 

“The mandate creating center line rumble strips on all state roadways will save lives as the noise and vibration will alert the driver to focus on the task at hand: driving,” John Gordon, a driving safety educator, said in a committee hearing for the bill last month.

Gordon’s son, Rusty, was killed in a distracted driving crash in 2008, leading the father to create a safety program called “Rusty’s Story.”

As the Capital Journal has reported, House Bill 51 would make rumble strips a requirement on two-way, undivided state highways with a speed limit of at least 45 miles per hour. HB 51, sponsored by state Rep. Timothy Ginter, R-Salem, was unanimously approved by House members last June and is now under consideration in the Senate. 

File photo of state Rep. Timothy Ginter, R-Salem, from Ohio House website.

The transportation budget last year included an increase in the gas tax, with proceeds going toward infrastructure projects. Gov. Mike DeWine touted the increase as helping to improve roadway safety. 

DeWine also highlighted the issue of distracted driving during the recent holiday season.

“Distracted driving involving smartphones is, without a doubt, a major contributing factor to this increase in traffic fatalities, which is why I’ve asked the Ohio State Highway Patrol to increase enforcement of distracted driving violations over the holidays,” DeWine said in a statement in December. 

Other related bills proposed this past year include:

  • House Bill 97, which would require bicyclists under 18 to wear helmets
  • House Bill 295, which would set safety ground rules for low-speed scooters (see related story here)
  • Senate Bill 73, which seeks to make pedestrian road crossings more safe
  • Senate Bill 85, which pertains to school zone signage

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.