Tickets for texting to start in July

Though more than 270 citations have been issued by the Ohio State Highway Patrol for drivers across the state who are texting while driving from March 2013 through the end of last month, local law enforcement agencies have not been issuing many.

Gov. John Kasich signed House Bill 99 in June 2012, which makes it a primary offense for minors to use a cellular device and a secondary offense for adult drivers. Police must pull drivers over for another reason, such as speeding, and must also prove a cell phone is being used.

Lowell Police Chief Jeff Perry said that no citations have been issued because the offense isn’t primary.

“Right now it’s usually a secondary (offense),” he said. “We usually stop (drivers) for speeding.”

Likewise, Beverly Police Chief Mark Sams said no citations had been issued in and around Beverly.

“None of the officers have issued any and as far as I know they haven’t encountered any (texting) violations at this time,” he said.

Sams added that the current Ohio law makes issuing citations difficult.

“The texting law is kind of hard to enforce with the restrictions we have in order to prove the case,” he said.

Looking forward, Sams acknowledged the dangers of texting while driving. He said officers will be vigilant and citations will be issued in the future.

Meanwhile in Marietta, a new ordinance was passed by city council just last week that makes texting, and handheld cellphone use in general, while driving a primary offense, where police can pull drivers over for that violation alone.

Mayor Joe Matthews said he is very pleased that something will finally be done about drivers who are more focused on cell phones than the roadway.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “The whole state of West Virginia has it, and some cities in Ohio. We need to worry about our city.”

Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite said the new law has a little while before it takes effect.

“The law has to lay 90 days before it comes into effect,” he said.

Waite said drivers texting is a big issue in the city.

“You see them on a regular basis,” he said, adding that they are usually the drivers sitting at the traffic lights for longer periods of time because they are texting, or are weaving back and forth because they are texting while actually trying to drive.

Waite said citations would not be issued until around July.

“We’ll be issuing warnings before we start actually issuing citations,” he said.

Training and preparations haven’t begun for the new law mainly because it’s not yet in effect, Waite said.

“That’ll all come before the date (it takes effect),” he said. “We’ll have to sit down with a game plan and decide how we’re going to go about it.”

Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks said no citations have been issued by the sheriff’s office either.

He said it is a matter of willpower for drivers to put down the phone.

“You just have to have the willpower to turn it off and put it in your pocket and answer it where you can safely do it,” Mincks said, adding that the problem is worse for younger drivers who often drive a little faster and look at their phones longer.

“Sometimes it could be longer than you think,” he added.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol Public Affairs Unit in Columbus said a total of four citations had been issued by the patrol for Washington County, involving drivers more than 18 years old, and none had been issued for drivers under 18.

“If (the drivers) look obviously young, our officers will make a judgment,” said Lt. Carlos Smith, of the Marietta Post, adding that adults have to be speeding, have a motor vehicle defect or another offense to be pulled over.

“Traffic safety is our priority,” he said. “(A driver’s) only focus should be concentrating on the road ahead and being a defensive driver. Those are the two things that will keep you the safest in a motor vehicle.”

Though only a few citations have been issued, Sgt. Michael Seabolt, with the Marietta patrol post, said the dangers of texting while driving are life-threatening.

“It’s very dangerous,” he said. “It distracts your attention away from the roadway, you’re distracted from what’s going on around you which can result in traffic crashes. (Those) can result in property damage, injuries or, in the worst case scenario, a fatality.”

In fact, Smith referenced a fatality that occurred in September.

“We had the fatal, where the (driver) using his device resulting in a fatality,” he said.

The fatality occurred when 23-year-old Zachary Dumas caused a car accident on Sept. 17, 2013, which killed Robert Goddard, 55. Dumas has been indicted by a Washington County grand jury on a first-degree misdemeanor count of vehicular homicide, a second-degree misdemeanor count of vehicular manslaughter and a third-degree felony count of tampering with evidence. He is accused of texting while driving.

“It can happen to anyone,” Smith said. “That’s our point. It’s never worth the end result. It’s a lot easier to pull into a parking lot or to the side of the road. Those few minutes…can save someone else’s life and it can save your life.”