COLUMBUS, Ohio — Drivers could be pulled over by police in some cases solely for holding or using a cellphone while driving under legislation that the Republican-led Ohio House passed Wednesday.
The bill to crack down on distracted driving would stiffen penalties for texting while driving and put stricter limits on how a person can use a cellphone while operating a vehicle.
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Ohio law currently prohibits texting while driving but allows drivers to hold their phones during a call and manually press buttons or screens to make those calls. The proposal would prohibit drivers from "using, holding, or physically supporting" such a device, with some exceptions, such as if they are stopped at a red light, using a speakerphone function without holding the phone, or holding a phone to their ears for a call but not using texting or typing functions.
Violations would become a primary offense rather than a secondary offense, meaning a police officer could issue a ticket for that violation without needing another reason to stop a driver.
Republican Rep. Bill Seitz, who proposed adding the exceptions about using devices at stoplights or held to the ear for calls, defended those amendments by saying that people "do not see through their ears" but their eyes, and compared the act to listening to the radio while driving.
Democrats questioned the amendments, saying what was passed doesn't go far enough and isn't truly a "hands-free" measure.
Bill analysts pointed out that current Ohio law "is silent" when it comes to new phone uses that have become a part of everyday life since the pandemic, such as attending virtual meetings. The current law also does not provide instruction for uses such as livestreaming or recording video.
The bill will go to the Senate next. GOP Senate President Matt Huffman said he is not in favor of the bill, but would allow it to come to a vote if fellow Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly show support.
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine had supported the legislation. His spokesperson, Dan Tierney, said the bill's passage in the House is a "great step forward" toward saving more lives and making Ohio roads safer.
Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.