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Less drivers, but more deaths on Ohio highways in 2020

Governor faces pushback from GOP leaders on strengthening distracted driving laws
Published: Feb. 11, 2021 at 10:42 PM EST
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - Fewer people hit the highways in 2020 due to coronavirus lockdowns. But across the country, including in Ohio, deaths and crashes soared.

Provisional data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol shows more than 1,236 people died in traffic crashes in 2020, the most in the last decade. Additionally, OSHP reported more than 100,000 distracted driving crashes in the state with more than 53,000 injuries since 2013.

“We have seen our emptier streets turn into risky roadways,” said Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety. “As vehicle miles traveled went down, risky behavior went up.”

The group’s 2021 Roadmap Report, which grades states’ laws on highway safety, ranked Ohio among the 12 worst states in the country when it comes to laws on the books to protect drivers.

It’s calling on Ohio to give the green light to stricter penalties.

Governor Mike DeWine agrees. He announced he’s again supporting legislation that allows police to pull over drivers for distracted driving. They’ll be included in his budget proposal.

“Ohio’s current laws don’t go far enough to change the culture around distracted driving, and people are dying because of it,” DeWine said in a statement. “Distracted driving is a choice that must be as culturally unacceptable as drunk driving is today, and strengthening our current laws will lead to more responsible driving.”

The provisions proposed by DeWine would make driving while using any electronic device a primary offense for adults. When a distracted driver using a device causes serious injury or death, the governor wants the penalties to mirror those of drunken driving.

“A law that restricts the use of a device is literally a vaccine that could be implemented right now,” Chase said. “We need our elected officials to demonstrate leadership to make our roads safer for everyone on them, not just the people who shouldn’t be using their cellphones while they’re driving, but the people sharing the roads with them.”

But not everyone’s anxious to ride shotgun on the governor’s proposal.

The Associated Press reports Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) believes the proposal could restrict liberties and freedoms.

Chase disagrees.

“We are concerned with the liberty of all road-users to be safe while on the road and not imperiled by people using their cellphones,” she said.

In announcing the proposed law, DeWine cited other states, including neighboring West Virginia, who have seen positive results from similar distracted driving laws. He said only Ohio, Nebraska, Missouri and Montana are without “primary enforcement laws for adult drivers using wireless devices for text-based communications or for any purpose.”

“For distracted and impaired driving laws, we know these are proven solutions to reduce fatalities,” Chase said. “Not only is there an enforcement need, but these laws have a deterrent effect. If people know that they could get a ticket while demonstrating this risky behavior, they’re more inclined not to do so.”

Governor DeWine had a similar proposal last year. It had bipartisan support, but it did not become law.

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