Proposal would add penalties for cell phone use while driving

MARIETTA – Drivers could soon face stiff fines and jail time for texting or talking on cell phones within the city of Marietta, according to a proposal by Mayor Joe Matthews during a city council police and fire committee meeting Monday.

“We want to do away with texting and cell phone use in Marietta, but we’ll have to override the current state law,” Matthews said.

City law director Paul Bertram III said a state law enacted in March prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from using an electronic communication device while operating a vehicle.

“State law has determined it’s a primary offense for anyone under 18, but for drivers over 18 it’s secondary, meaning an adult talking or texting on a cell phone would have to be pulled over for some other violation before they could be charged with a minor misdemeanor,” he said. “The mayor’s proposal would make (the cell phone violation charge) equal for everyone.”

Matthews distributed copies of a law banning the use of cell phones while driving that was enacted by the city of Beachwood in mid 2012, and said a similar ordinance should be passed for Marietta.

The Beachwood legislation reads, in part, “No person shall use an electronic wireless communications device in any manner while driving a motor vehicle in the city, including composing, sending or receiving text messages and using an electronic wireless communications device to dial, answer, talk, or listen unless such use is otherwise authorized…”

The authorized use includes contacting law enforcement, emergency personnel or fire departments to report an emergency situation.

Also authorized in the Beachwood law is a driver using a device while parked or stopped and removed from the flow of traffic. A driver using a voice-operated or hands-free device that allows both hands on the steering wheel would be exempted from the cell phone ban.

Public safety personnel using communications devices in their work would be exempted from the ban.

Violators of the Beachwood ordinance are charged with a first-degree misdemeanor that can include a fine of up to $1,000 and a maximum 180-day jail sentence.

Bertram said in order to supersede the state law governing cell phone use while driving, Marietta’s law would have to be stricter, meaning violations would be considered misdemeanors of the first, second, third or fourth degree.

A fourth-degree misdemeanor would carry a maximum penalty of $250 and up to 30 days in jail, a third-degree misdemeanor carries a $500 maximum fine and 60 days jail time, and a second-degree misdemeanor offense could end with a fine of up to $750 and 90 days in jail.

Bertram said it would be up to council to decide on the level of misdemeanor for which cell phone-using drivers would be charged, but he cautioned that the city would be liable to pay the housing cost for any jail time levied against an errant driver.

“That cost is currently $60 a day for the city,” said Councilman Steve Thomas, D-3rd Ward, who chairs the police and fire committee.

The committee members basically agreed that some sort of texting while driving ban should be put into place, and that the charge for violation should be considered at least a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

“I think this would be a good thing, texting while driving causes a lot of accidents,” said Councilman Denver Abicht, D-at large.

Council president Walt Brothers agreed.

“I think the Ohio legislature chickened out by not making the state law more strict for adult drivers,” he said. “Texting while driving is extremely dangerous.”

But Councilman Michael Mullen, I-at large, recommended a public hearing be held to gain input from citizens on the proposed texting while driving ban for the city.

Thomas scheduled a public hearing at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 in the community building at Lookout Park.

Bertram said if an ordinance is enacted it would become effective in December.