Distracted driving bill seeks to strengthen current law

State Rep. Mary Lightbody, D-Westerville, speaks at an event in the Statehouse. Photo from Ohio House website.

Sharon Montgomery was riding home on a Mount Vernon road after having dinner for her husband’s 51st birthday, when her life and its mission changed forever.

It was on that road 19 years ago that she and her husband, John, passed through an intersection at the same time a driver flew through the same intersection, causing a roll-over crash that resulted in life-threatening injuries to both Sharon and John.

Sharon would spend three weeks in the hospital with collapsed lungs and broken bones and teeth. Her husband went into the intensive care unit, and never left.

The driver, who also had his four-year-old granddaughter in the car, according to Sharon Montgomery, had been distracted by his cell phone at the time of the crash.

He was fined $75 for a traffic violation. 

Sharon was left with the loss of her husband, a $300,000 medical bill and long-lasting injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Back home in Gahanna, Montgomery had a victim’s advocate and an attorney friend look at the case. They said nothing could be done. A lawsuit didn’t pan out because the precedent didn’t exist.

The law did not treat distracted driving like it did driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

“It’s driving under the influence of electronics,” Montgomery told the Capital Journal. “It’s just as dangerous as driving under the influence of chemicals, and Ohio has not done anything effective about it.”

Ever since then, Montgomery has been pushing for a change in the law to make the offense a more serious crime. She even wants to change victims rights laws to include those affected by distracted driving.

Montgomery’s story is what brought state Rep. Mary Lightbody, D-Westerville, to fellow legislators with a bill that would make using electronic devices while driving a primary offense.

House Bill 468 would change current law to allow law enforcement to pull people over for using their devices. As the law stands now, law enforcement can only pull a driver over for another offense, such as driving without a seatbelt or speeding, and then assess the use of the devices.

Lightbody said it also clarifies some parts of current law that are vague, such as the act of writing in the notes section of a phone or inputting a calendar item.

“If you’re typing into your phone a message of any kind, you’re still a distracted driver, which is why we made that clear in this bill,” Lightbody said, adding that Bluetooth and hands-free technology are still allowed under the proposal.

The bill would also create a blanket law on distracted driving, as opposed to the separate municipal laws that exist now around the state. Separate laws can cause someone who travels on state highways to enter different enforcement areas, whether they know it or not, according to Lightbody.

“This would make it statewide so that it would…bring everybody up to the same level,” Lightbody said.

The House bill will be assigned to a committee for review.