Texting ban proves a challenge for police

MARIETTA – Ohio’s ban on texting while driving has passed its six-month warning period and has now been fully active since March 1. However, the first three months of the new law have reinforced initial concerns that enforcing the texting rule may prove difficult.

“We have to see them doing it, and usually if people are texting something they’re not going to hold the phone up where we can see it,” said Patrolman Dianna Hively of the Marietta Police Department.

So far the department has issued no warnings or citations for the offense, which carries a $150 penalty, said Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite.

In fact, the law has only resulted in one Washington County citation which was issued by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, according to Marietta Municipal Court records.

Even if officers spot a texter, they cannot automatically pull them over, noted Hively.

“As long as it’s a secondary offense we’re limited,” she said.

A secondary offense means officers cannot stop an offender unless they are also caught violating a primary offense, such as speeding.

All of Ohio’s neighboring states have made texting while driving a primary offense.

In fact, 11 states and Washington, D.C., have gone so far as to prohibit all hand held phone usage for all drivers. West Virginia is one such state.

Ohio’s ban includes a provision that prohibits all hand held cell phone usage, including talking, for novice drivers.

In the case of the novice driver provision, hand held phone usage is a primary offense, but even that law is hard to enforce because an officer needs to be very confident that the person being pulled over for talking on his or her phone is under 18, said Hively.

Washington County Juvenile Court Magistrate Mark Kerenyi said he has yet to see any cell phone violations come through juvenile court, but noted that he typically sees citations three weeks after they are issued.

A second local citation, which has not yet been included in municipal court records, was issued Wednesday by Ohio State Highway Patrol Trooper Dustin Payne when he spotted a man who was speeding along Virginia Street with a cell phone near his face.

“I went up to him and told him I saw him texting and he admitted to it,” said Payne.

Having someone admit to the violation is not common, said Payne. And though officers are free to cite someone without an admission, the violation can be hard to prove if taken to court, he added.

That is because there are a lot of gray areas in the law that allow people to dial or perform other activities on their phones.

“If a person didn’t admit it, and you took him to court on it, it’d be hard to prove. They’ll say ‘I was just dialing,'” said Payne.

Ohio State Highway Patrol Lt. Carlos Smith said there is also a loophole that allows drivers to text in case of emergencies, which could be interpreted differently by different people.

Still, one citation is not enough, said Newport resident Karen Miller. She said she wished the law made it easier for law enforcement to nab more offenders.

“I’ve been almost hit a couple times by people texting or calling on the phone,” said Miller, who added that she does not use a phone while driving.

Visiting Marietta, Natalie Marlatt said that she has noticed plenty of drivers whom she suspects to be texting in her hometown of New Philadelphia. The careless drivers are upsetting, she said.

“My life is not worth a text message,” she said.

Marlatt, 33, agreed that is very difficult to catch texting drivers, but added that she thinks the law is fine.

“It’s just that people need to abide by it. And hopefully people will be more apt not to text now that it’s law,” she said.

Currently the Marietta Police Department simply does not have the manpower to go around hunting down texting offenders, said Waite.

“If we see it, we’re going to enforce it. But we’re four officers down and we’re trying just to maintain calls for service,” he said.