- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - More than 270 citations have been issued to drivers for texting or using a cellphone behind the wheel in violation of a new Ohio law, according to data from the State Highway Patrol.

The tickets were handed out from March 2013 through the end of last month, covering the first year the statewide texting ban has been in effect.

The citations pale in comparison to the almost 367,600 tickets issued for speeding over the same time period, but supporters say the ticket figures don’t tell the whole picture.

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“There’s no way we will ever know the number of lives saved by this,” said state Rep. Rex Damschroder, a Freemont Republican who was one of the bill’s sponsors.

The state Health Department’s most recent youth risk survey found that nearly half of Ohio teen drivers had texted or emailed while behind the wheel.

The law is stricter for minors than adults. Yet of the 273 tickets issued by the patrol over the past year, 43 were given to drivers under the age of 18.

Under the law, younger drivers cannot talk on their phones and are prohibited from texting or using other hand-held devices, such as an iPod. For them, it’s a primary offense - meaning drivers can be pulled over specifically for committing the act.

For those 18 and older, texting while driving is a secondary offense. That means an officer has to stop a driver for another offense first, such as speeding or running a red light.

Damschroder had wanted texting to be a primary offense for all drivers, which he said would have been easier to enforce.

“Can an officer look in the window and tell if someone is 17 or 19?” Damschroder said. “I think the answer is probably not - which makes it very difficult for the officer to pull anybody over specifically for texting while driving, because they can’t tell their age.”

Sgt. Vincent Shirey of the State Highway Patrol said he does not have an issue enforcing the texting ban. He said that distracted drivers who may be on their phones are most likely to be out of their lane or following too closely behind another vehicle.

“We just need to get probable cause in order to stop the vehicle,” he said. “I would not say that it’s difficult to enforce.”

The law carries possible fines of $150 for the first offense, and teens could also have their license suspended for 60 days. Repeat offenders could face a $300 fine, and repeat offenders under 18 could have their licenses taken away for a year.

The law doesn’t trump city ordinances on texting or cellphone use that might be tougher.

Under the law, drivers can text and use cellphones in cases of an emergency and when the vehicle is stopped and off the road.

Both Damschroder and Shirey said the goal of the law is to change driver behavior.

“By making it illegal, fewer people will do it,” Damschroder said.

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