Law enforcement, Ohio families want change in culture to prevent distracted driving

A police cruiser. Photo from the Village of New Concord website.

A bill to make distracted driving a primary offense is being considered by an Ohio Senate committee, and law enforcement and families came to support passage of the bill on Wednesday.

Local sports broadcaster Dom Tiberi was one of several family members who spoke on behalf of those they’ve lost to distracted driving crashes. Tiberi’s daughter Maria died in 2013 after hitting the back of a stopped semi on I-270. Tiberi told the Senate Local Government, Public Safety, and Veterans Affairs that a police investigation determined an “unknown distraction” was most likely the cause of the crash.

“To this day we have no idea what Maria was doing,” Tiberi testified. “All we know is that she lost her life, and we lost our beautiful daughter.”

The committee met to discuss Senate Bill 285, a bill with bipartisan cosponsors, which would make using an “electronic wireless communications device” while driving a primary offense (able to cause the driver to be pulled over), and raise the penalty from a minor misdemeanor to a more severe unclassified misdemeanor. A new aggravated vehicular homicide offense would also be created under the bill, with felony charges possible if a person is convicted of causing serious harm or death of another as a result of distracted driving. A similar bill is making its way through the House as well.

For Tiberi and the other families that attended the meeting, a change in the law is needed, as long as it also creates a change in culture.

“Driving a car somewhere went from driving from point A to point B to a place where we entertain ourselves,” Tiberi said. “We eat lunch, breakfast, we feel that we have all these rights to use these phones…as parents and grandparents we should be screaming that the leading killer of our children in the United States is car crashes. That is not acceptable.”

The Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Ohio Department of Transportation both testified in support of Senate Bill 285. 

OSHP Superintendent Col. Richard Fambro showed dashboard camera video of distracted drivers who were pulled over for other offenses, because the current law does not include distracted driving as a primary offense to make a traffic stop. Despite the fact that surveys of Ohioans done by the highway patrol showed distracted driving as their number one concern on the roadways, officers and troopers still have their hands tied by existing legislation.

“There are just too many exceptions that we have to process through in order to get to the point of making that stop,” Fambro said.

The bill received written support from the Ohio Bicycle Federation, the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Safety Council, the Ohio Municipal League, and multiple healthcare, transportation and insurance groups.