As Ohioans work to combat the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, roadway travel across the state has drastically decreased compared to the previous year. According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, Ohio’s traffic count fell by nearly 50% in April and has remained below last years’ count even as businesses have reopened throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, fewer motorists have resulted in fewer car crashes and enforcement stops. However, the huge reductions in traffic have not necessarily created safer roadways.
Traffic Fatalities in Ohio
In July of this year alone, 154 Ohio citizens were killed in traffic accidents, making it the deadliest month on Ohio roadways since 2007. With one month left in 2020, the Ohio State Highway Patrol has already reported 1,131 traffic fatalities. By comparison, there were 1,041 fatal crashes resulting in 1,115 deaths in 2019.
Ohio’s traffic fatalities have been on an upward trend over the past six years, but this year’s increase is especially alarming given the dramatic decline in roadway travel. So why the continued incline in fatal traffic accidents? Many, including Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, believe distracted driving is a major contributor. Distracted driving violations in Ohio have increased significantly in 2020, with 8,666 reported violations—almost 800 more than the previous year— so far this year.
Pandemic Making Roads Deadlier Nationwide
Empty, open streets can cause drivers to become less attentive and more prone to engage in reckless driving habits, such as texting and speeding. According to a nationwide study conducted by the data company Zendrive, collisions per mile have increased by 63% on U.S. roads since January 2020.
In another study published earlier this year, the same company found that cell phone use, hard braking, and speeding increased by 38%, 25%, and 27%, respectively, during the first five weeks of the stay-in-place order. Fast-forward to November; phone usage frequency has continued to impact driving safety nationwide, with 57% of all collisions involving phone usage before impact.
Given this data, the uptick in traffic fatalities in Ohio and across the U.S. should come as no surprise. Lawmakers have long recognized that distracted driving creates enormous potential for serious injury and death, leading 25 states to ban all hand-held cell phone use and 48 states, including Ohio, to ban text messaging while driving.
Hands-Free Ohio: SB 285 Seeks to Expand Distracted Driving Laws
The spike in traffic fatalities and distracted driving recently led Governor DeWine to voice his support of Senate Bill 285, which aims to strengthen Ohio’s distracted driving laws. While Ohio currently only bans texting while driving, SB 285 would ban all hand-held device use and expand the definition of “electronic devices” to include any device that displays video, exchanges data, or is used to communicate. This distinction is important, as drivers often use their electronic devices for far more than texting. However, as it currently stands, Ohio law cannot penalize drivers who use their phones to shop, scroll through social media, take videos, or play games. SB 285 would change that, making it unlawful to use an electronic device for any reason while operating a vehicle.
SB 285 would also make cellphone use a primary offense; in other words, it would allow police officers to make traffic stops for cellphone use. Currently, officers cannot stop motorists for cellphone use alone—the driver must commit another traffic offense before an office may penalize a phone use violation. Proponents of the bill argue that law enforcement should be permitted to stop distracted drivers before they cause harm, rather than having to wait until the offender runs a red light or rear-ends another motorist.
Penalties for Electronic Device Use Under SB 285
Finally, the bill would increase penalties for electronic device use while driving, subjecting violators to a $150 fine and a 60-day license suspension for the first violation and imposing a $300 fine and a one-year suspension for a subsequent violation.
States that have passed similar legislation have seen a significant decrease in traffic fatalities. While the bill is still awaiting Senate approval, many believe it is likely to pass. In the meantime, Ohioans can protect themselves and others by abiding by speed limits, avoiding distractions, and practicing defensive driving.
Tittle & Perlmuter Wishes You a Safe & Happy Holiday Season
This holiday season, we must work together to protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. Abide by the speed limits, and remember—mask up in public, phones down in cars!