Tougher distracted driving penalties signed into Ohio law

Sophomore Alden Williamson checks his phone while driving, an action prohibited under Senate Bill 288.

Taylor Murray | The Chronicle

Stay alive, don’t text and drive. 

On January 3, 2023, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed the new Senate Bill 288 into law in hopes of lowering the number of Ohioans who use their phone while driving. The bill states that distracted driving is a primary traffic offense, punishable by a $150 fine and two points on a license for a first offense.

The bill will go into effect on April 3, 2023. There will be a six-month period immediately following this in which officers can only give a written warning to distracted drivers. The bill will become fully enacted on October 3, 2023. 

DeWine, in a speech last spring in which he urged legislators to pass the bill, said that there were nearly 12,000 distracted driving crashes within the past year. Of those, nearly 5,000 crashes involved drivers from ages 15-24.

Many Mason High School (MHS) students spend their high school years completing an online educational course on driving and getting their hard-earned driver’s license after their sixteenth birthday. Some teens look forward to this milestone, and MHS junior Sydney Vargo has enjoyed the freedom of her license for nearly a year and a half.

“I love driving so much,” Vargo said. “It’s so much easier to go places and do stuff with your friends and to get myself to practices and clubs and meetings as well as work.”

Vargo said that her parents are very concerned with her safety especially while she is driving, so she made sure not to use her phone in the car. However, Vargo said that there are times when she wants to switch music tracks or call her parents on her phone, and she is not sure if that will be allowed now that the new bill is in place.

“It’s kind of difficult to know that I’m being watched, and I’m scared about switching the song really fast,” Vargo said. “I wonder how strict law enforcement is gonna be when it comes to it. What if they see someone just tap their phone – [are they] gonna pull them over, because the fines are $150.”

Even though it means there will be more officers on the roads, Vargo said she is glad that distracted drivers will face consequences now. Lots of drivers easily become preoccupied while on the road, and she said that she has seen many people nearly get in crashes due to being on their phones. 

“[Distracted driving] is something that can be so easily prevented,” Vargo said. “Since it’s a growing digital age, people are becoming more lenient about it, but it’s something that’s so dangerous. So I really hope that [the bill] decreases that behavior. Because it’s so easy.”

Rachel Yang, a senior at MHS, is not concerned about the new bill. Student drivers are already under stricter rules regarding phones while driving, but Yang said that she has seen other people have their phones out when on the road. 

“I haven’t gotten into a car crash or anything related,” Yang said. “But it is a little annoying, seeing people watching TikToks or texting while driving, but it’s never really been a physical issue for me.”

Yang, like Governor DeWine, is optimistic that the bill will help decrease crashes and distracted driving.

“I hope [the bill] will make the roads safer,” Yang said. “I just think it’s better for people to not be distracted while driving.”

Alden Williamson, an MHS sophomore who got his license a little over a month ago, said that he does not touch his phone while driving. He said that he can control his music from buttons on his steering wheel, so there is no need to access his phone during a drive. However, he said he knows many people who might be affected by this enforcement of stricter rules.

“I think it would definitely affect a lot of [people] because they like controlling their phones rather than using the car buttons for skipping tracks,” Williamson said.

Williamson said that he and others in his family pass cars frequently with actively texting drivers. The new Senate bill will give officers permission to pull these drivers off of the road and fine them for creating danger on the roads.

“It’s a problem that everyone’s on their phone while they’re driving,” Williamson said. “You’ll see someone stopped in the middle of the lane going like five miles an hour, and then you pass them and you see that they’re on their phone.”

Williamson, in agreement with Governor DeWine, said that distracted drivers are the cause of many wrecks, hazards and traffic problems. During DeWine’s public signing of the bill, he stated that he is certain Senate Bill 288 will save lives. The governor said that he was a supporter of stricter penalties regarding distracted driving since the moment that legislature brought the proposition to him, given that his 22-year-old daughter was killed in a car crash in 1993.

“It’s certainly no coincidence that evolving smartphone technology has coincided with increasing roadway deaths and serious injury,” DeWine said.

Senate Bill 288 has been in the works for years, and now that it has been officially signed Ohio residents can expect a decrease in car crashes similar to those documented in other states with tougher distracted driving laws. A representative from Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company said that within 2 years of enacting legislation for stricter enforcement, individual states witnessed a 15-20% decrease in fatalities from car crashes.

“I hope that [the bill] encourages people to realize that texting or being on your phone while you’re driving is unsafe,” Williamson said. “There are consequences and you should be focusing on driving and not texting or changing music. I just hope that it reduces the amount of crashes and fatalities in the area.”

Photo by Megan Lee