Stories behind the signs: Push to limit distracted driving in Ohio after increase in deaths
What’s the state’s safety corridor like--one year after it opened?
CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - At the end of April 2019, 296 people have died on Ohio roads. That's up four fatalities from this time last year.
April is also a month set aside to remind drivers of the dangers of operating a vehicle while distracted.
In 2018, distracted driving was suspected as a contributing factor in 5% of all crashes. That may be a low number because state data only includes instances where drivers were proven to be distracted at the time of the crash or times when they admitted to it.
Additionally, Ohio law does not allow law enforcement officers to pull over drivers just because they're using a phone or otherwise distracted. That's because distracted driving, while against the law, is a "secondary offense." A law enforcement officer must see a driver engaged in other illegal activity, like speeding, before they can make a traffic stop.
However, there are multiple efforts underway, at both a state and national level, to crackdown on distracted driving.
Leading the charge are people like Tina Yanssens, whose father, Dave Muslovski, was killed in an accident caused by distracted driving.
In June 2010, Muslovski, a Youngstown business owner who had managed to lose over 100 pounds by walking to and from work, was hit by a car not far from his home. The teenage driver admitted she'd been texting behind the wheel.
“It was a very, very sad time for our family,” said Yanssens.
In the years after her father's death, she's become an advocate for increased awareness about and stricter enforcement of distracted driving. She wrote letters to every single member of Ohio's legislature, mailing them along with a booklet of photos of her father, hoping sharing her family story would help lawmakers understand the impact of lax laws on family members of those killed in distracted driving crashes.
"People are dying. They're dying right here in our own backyard. We need politicians to make this a priority," she said.
Despite Ohio's law on distracted driving, the provisions do not include an outright ban on all handheld devices. Yanssens says the "hands-free law" would help ensure that drivers are focused solely on the road ahead of them, not on their other devices.
State law enforcement are also trying out new ways to keep the public focused behind the wheel. In April 2018, Ohio’s First Distracted Driving Safety Corridor launched on I-76 and I-80 in eastern Ohio, near Canfield’s Highway Patrol.
Lt. Brad Bucey, the post commander, says the efforts are a combination of increased patrol presence, as well as constant reminders to drivers that they need to pay attention to their driving.
"There's no statistic that'll show us how many people put their phones down due to this, but the crash volume has been reduced significantly, by approximately 30 percent. And is that from the signage? We tend to think it is," said Lt. Bucey. "Also there's an enforcement aspect. We have troopers out here as much as possible, trying to enforce the driving while texting laws."
Last week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine held a press conference to announce the results of the Distracted Driving Task Force, a statewide effort to take a hard look at distracted driving--and what might be done about it.
Recommendations by that committee included making Ohio a "primary infraction" state when it comes to distracted driving, so that law enforcement might pull over people they see texting, streaming video, or engaging in other unsafe behaviors behind the wheel, regardless of whether they're committing other infractions.
A secondary recommendation would introduce distracted driving safety courses in Ohio schools. Yet another would stiffen fines and penalties for distracted drivers.
For Tina Yanssens, who is now running her family business without her beloved father, the path forward is clear. She says she'll continue to lobby for changes that make Ohio roads safer, free of distractions.
“I think I was chosen for his battle. And I think my dad prepared me for it,” she said.
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