mboldened, or perhaps chastened, by the passage of laws banning texting while driving in 33 other states, the Ohio General Assembly decided to stand up for texting-free roads in 2012. The state started ticketing violators on March 1 of this year, joining Kentucky, Indiana and the city of Cincinnati. Once again, life would be peachy without drivers fiddling with their smartphones.
Or so it was supposed to be. Drivers in Greater Cincinnati are texting away. Men, women. Young, old. Smart and not so. Texting behind the wheel is an indulgence that people just can’t resist.
“In a half-an-hour commute, I might see three people texting on the highway, in thick traffic at typical highway speeds,” says Eric Harrison, whose daily commute takes him from Loveland to Northside. “They know they’re not going to get caught.”
True, the odds are spectacularly good that vehicular texters will elude capture. The Ohio State Highway Patrol doesn’t expect to have ticket counts until year-end, but five months into enforcement of the law, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department had yet to issue a single ticket.
And in Cincinnati, whose ordinance against use of a handheld smartphone for texting and any kind of Web dabbling took effect in January 2011, tickets are rare. City police issued 12 texting tickets in both 2011 and 2012 and four to date in 2013. Compare that with 16,743 tickets for speeding and 4,904 tickets for running stoplights during that two-and-a-half-year span.
Cincinnati patrol officer Steve Fox has yet to issue his first vehicular texting ticket.
“I’m looking for a sustained concentration on their cell phone beyond dialing a number,” he says. “People are always glancing at their phone. They look over and see me and put their phone down. That pretty much kills a citation.”
Police agencies in Ohio and Kentucky are not aware of any deaths or sensational accidents caused by texting drivers since the bans went into effect. A glance at Cincinnati texting tickets shows at least two crashes resulting from inopportune texting.
In August 2011, 22-year-old Samantha Davies was cited for losing control of her Honda Accord on the southbound off-ramp of I-75 onto the Norwood Lateral in the middle of a sunny day. According to the crash report, the car was totaled and Davies and a 2-year-old passenger were taken to a hospital for possible injuries. The police officer gave Davies a ticket for failure to maintain control of her car and for texting while driving. Davies paid $200 in fines. A police spokeswoman said the officer doesn’t remember how he knew that Davies was texting.
Likewise, there was no indication how a Cincinnati patrol officer knew that 33-year-old Christopher Shipferling of Fort Mill, S.C., was texting when his rented Jeep Grand Cherokee sideswiped a flat-bed trailer legally parked on Langdon Farm Road the night of Jan. 29. No one was hurt. Shipferling was cited for failure to maintain control and for texting.
Of the 28 texting tickets issued by Cincinnati Police, only four went to teenagers. One texter was 54, another 42. Fifteen were women, 13 men. The sample is still too small to draw conclusions about offenders, other than to suggest that vehicular texting cuts across age and gender.
“We’re concentrating on youth, but surprisingly … the data to me shows that a lot of experienced drivers are texting and driving who should know better,” says Ken Hinkle, police chief in Obetz, a Columbus suburb, and president of the Ohio Association of Police Chiefs. “We’re seeing what we don’t like to see.”
Until hand-held smartphones give way to voice-activated systems installed as standard automotive equipment, drivers’ use of those phones in illegal ways will vex even the most eagle-eyed of police officers. For starters, not a single state in the Midwest has outlawed adult usage of handheld mobile phones for talking. (Illinois is about to join 11 states that have. Kentucky bans phone use by drivers under 18.)
What might appear to be texting could be the punching in of a contact list and a phone call. In Cincinnati, drivers are forbidden from using smartphones or computers to access the Internet unless reporting an emergency. Except in some Ohio cities, it’s legal for anyone 18 and older to barrel down the road while checking e-maps and, God forbid, Facebook and fantasy sports sites. In Kentucky, driving and surfing remains perfectly legal.
“The way the law is written, people could be making a phone call or using their GPS or the Internet,” says Trooper David Jones of Kentucky State Police Post 6 in Dry Ridge. “But if they’re weaving in their lane, which is careless driving, I don’t have to prove he or she is texting.”
Most drivers that Jones suspects of texting say they were making a phone call, he says. But on one occasion last summer, Jones said there was no doubt in his mind what the driver was doing.
“I was in Alexandria on U.S. 27, pulled alongside a woman at a stoplight, and she was wearing the texting away. Then she drove into the oncoming left-turn lane,” he said. “She said she was making a phone call. I said, ‘Woman, don’t even.’ She was one of the few I’ve actually caught in the act of texting.”
Kentucky began enforcing its anti-texting law at the start of 2011. Statewide, 314 texting tickets were issued that year, followed by 561 in 2012 and 202 through May 13 of this year. That pattern holds true for Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties: Police issued 33 tickets in 2011, 58 in 2012 and 26 through May 13, or one every two to three weeks. Kentucky’s first-offense fine of $25 has a 1980s ring to it; Ohio and Cincinnati squeeze $150 from their violators.
Fox, the Cincinnati patrolman, says the city will use its fullest police power to prosecute texters who cause bad accidents. “If we did believe (texting) was a factor in a crash with a serious injury or fatality, we will get a search warrant for phone records to confirm if they were texting,” he said.
Last month Florida became the 41st state to ban texting while driving. No such law exists in Arizona, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. ©