Say goodbye to FaceTiming your friends on the road: On April 4, the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s (ODPS) distracted driving law went into effect, restricting the use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving. Although it has been illegal for drivers under 18 to use mobile devices since 2012, the new legislation expands restrictions to Ohio drivers of all ages, along with severe penalties if law enforcement pulls a driver over for a violation.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 48 states have had a ban on text messaging for all drivers, with the exception of Missouri and Montana. However, only 30 states had implemented a broader handheld ban, which increased to 31 following Ohio’s new legislation.
The risk of motor vehicle crashes increases drastically as a result of using a cellphone or mobile device while driving. Since 2018, the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) has documented over 60,000 car crashes as a result of distracted driving, with 53 crashes resulting in serious injury in 2023 alone. In the past 12 months, Knox County has had 52 distracted driving crashes, and at least one resulted in a fatality.
The law intends to reduce the number of crashes as a result of cellphone usage. Having your phone in your hand, lap or on other parts of your body now allows Ohio law enforcement to pull a driver over, even if the driver has not committed any other offense. The law also allows law enforcement to pull a driver over for other actions, such as dialing a phone number, sending a text message, browsing social media or making video calls.
Actions which fall under “hands-free” technology — when a phone can be activated using voice commands, or only require a single swipe or tap to be used — remain legal. This allows drivers to continue listening to music through Bluetooth or using GPS navigation. However, for any action which requires physically manipulating a phone, the ODPS requires drivers to pull over.
Although the law has been in effect for over a week, the OSHP and local law enforcement will only issue warnings — not citations — for the first six months to help drivers adapt to the new law. Beginning Oct. 5, law enforcement officers will start issuing citations for any violations.
The penalties for breaking the distracted driving law vary depending on how many offenses a driver has had over a two-year span. For a driver’s first offense within two years, the penalty is a fine up to $150. A driver with three or more offenses within two years, however, faces up to a $500 fine and a 90-day license suspension. The penalties also incorporate the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ point system. Penalties range from two to four points depending on the driver’s number of previous offenses. Points are applied to a person’s driving record if they are convicted of a traffic violation, and drivers who accumulate 12 or more points over a two-year period risk license suspension.
The ODPS specifies exemptions to this law, such as a driver reporting an emergency to law enforcement, holding a phone to their ear during a phone conversation and first responders using a phone as part of their official duties.
The full list of exemptions can be found on the ODPS website, and the full version of the law is available online in Section 4511.204 of the Ohio Revised Code.