DeWine proposes ‘Hands-Free Ohio’ legislation targeting distracted driving

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Gov. Mike DeWine is taking a “hands-on” approach in tackling the issue of distracted driving by promoting his vision of a “Hands-Free Ohio.”

The governor is supporting a new proposal that would outlaw the use of wireless devices while driving. The plan is meant to target drivers’ cell phone usage in a state which has seen its number of traffic fatalities rise in recent years.

“Although Ohio’s current laws are well-intended, they simply haven’t gone far enough to change the culture around using technology behind the wheel,” DeWine stated in a news release announcing the Hands-Free Ohio proposal. “By strengthening Ohio’s laws, we believe we can change behaviors, prevent crashes, and save lives.”

Ohio Sens. Stephanie Kunze (R-Hilliard) and Sean O’Brien (D-Bazetta) intend to sponsor the bill, which has yet to be formally introduced. 

State Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard

The crux of the law change would be making it a primary traffic offense to drive while handling a wireless device. Currently, in most areas of the state, this is only a secondary offense — meaning a person can only be pulled over for distracted driving if they first committed another traffic offense. 

DeWine’s plan was publicized days after a Democratic lawmaker in the House testified on behalf of her own plan to reduce the number of distracted driving crashes and deaths. State Rep. Mary Lightbody, D-Westerville, introduced House Bill 468 in January and spoke of her bill at a committee hearing last week.

Her bill prohibits drivers from texting, viewing “internet-based content,” playing games or using any app. It offers several exceptions, such as using a phone to place/answer a call or using a phone’s GPS navigation system. 

“Like many others, I believe this is a problem Ohio needs to solve,” Lightbody said in a subsequent statement released after DeWine’s news conference. “I look forward to working with the Governor and our House and Senate colleagues to get this issue addressed.”

The proposal outlined by DeWine is more strict. This would outlaw nearly all usage of cell phones while driving, unless the activity is hands-free. Drivers could not type in directions while in motion, or hold a phone to their ear. 

Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta

“We must make the use of wireless devices behind the wheel as unacceptable as drinking and driving is today, and we believe that tougher consequences will be a strong deterrent,” Kunze said in the news release. 

O’Brien said he is “confident that our Hands-Free Ohio bill will lead to more responsible driving all over the state.

In a Capital Journal poll of readers last week, a majority on Facebook said they do not support an effort to make distracted driving a primary traffic offense (61% against, 39% for). On Twitter, the response was reversed, with 58.6% in favor of it and 41.4% against.