Turnout was extremely light Tuesday night for a Marietta City Council police and fire committee meeting to discuss a proposed ban on texting and cell phone use while driving within the city limits.
"I wish we had more people here tonight, but maybe that indicates there's no opposition to this proposal and I'm on the right track," said Mayor Joe Matthews.
The mayor wants council to develop and pass an ordinance that would ban cell phone use and texting while driving within the city of Marietta.
SAM SHAWVER The Marietta Times
Marietta Police Chief Brett McKitrick, center, gestures during a discussion about a proposed ban on texting while driving at a special city council police and fire committee meeting Tuesday. Also shown are Councilman Denver Abicht, left, and Lt. Carlos Smith with the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Marietta Post.
"I've seen too many near misses by people using cell phones in town," Matthews said. "One of the worst was a lady who had her elbows on the steering wheel, putting on makeup with one hand and a cell phone in the other."
He said texting and talking while holding a cell phone is a dangerous practice that has to be addressed by the city.
Tuesday's meeting began with a video presentation on the dangers of texting and driving with reactions from victims, their families, and from drivers who caused accidents while texting.
If you go
Marietta City Council's streets committee will meet at 3 p.m. today in the second floor conference room at 304 Putnam St., followed by a finance committee session at 4 p.m.
All council committee meetings, except executive sessions, are open to the public. More city information available at www.mariettaoh.net
"I can't tell my son 'go play in the yard' anymore," said one mother in the video whose 8-year-old child was paralyzed and placed on life support after being struck by a texting driver.
Another man in the film recalled texting the words "I love you" before causing a fatal accident.
"That was the last text I sent before I killed three people," he said. "I was texting back and forth with my wife. When I looked up there was a body falling across the front of my van."
Following the video presentation Lt. Carlos Smith with the Ohio State Highway Patrol's Marietta post noted that the state had just recently passed a texting while driving law this year.
"This is a huge problem that we're seeing every day," he said. "And we're being very aggressive in pursuing violators in order to promote public safety."
But the state law that went into effect in March of this year is not strong enough for adult drivers, according to Marietta Police Chief Brett McKitrick.
"I think the current Ohio law is very weak," he said. "Texting while driving is not a primary offense for adults. It's a secondary offense and an officer has to see them commit a primary offense while driving before they can be pulled over."
City law director Paul Bertram III agreed, noting the state law sets different standards for drivers, depending on their age.
"In Ohio, if you're under the age of 18 it's illegal for you to use any electronic wireless communication device while driving, including electronic games, computers, cell phones, or other devices," he said. "It's a primary offense and those juvenile drivers can be fined $150 and have their license suspended for up to 60 days on the first offense."
Bertram said the city ordinance being proposed by Matthews would make the same use of such devices a primary offense for drivers 18 and over within Marietta's city limits.
"The mayor and city are attempting to put together a prohibition on the use of electronic devices that would distract a driver," he said.
But he added that hands-free devices like dash-mounted GPS units or devices that allow drivers to talk while driving without having to hold a phone would be allowable under the proposed law.
Quoting some statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation, he said 40 percent of all Americans who use cell phones have used their phones to talk or text while driving. And 60 percent of teens have admitted to texting while driving.
"And you're 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash when texting while driving," Bertram said.
Matthews said he has looked at texting while driving laws enacted by other Ohio cities and recommended Marietta consider an ordinance similar to that used by Beachwood, a small Cleveland suburb.
Bertram said he had contacted Beachwood's law director and was told 200 cases related to texting and cell phone use by drivers had been issued by law enforcement officers in the first six months after the Beachwood ordinance was enacted.
"But one thing Beachwood did when they passed the law was to set up a period during which warnings were issued to drivers who violated the ordinance," he said. "A significant number of warnings were issued."
Bertram suggested that Marietta should also include a similar warning period if a ban on texting and driving is enacted.
McKitrick said a city law making it a primary offense to text or talk on a hand-held phone or other device would make it much easier for police to enforce the ordinance.
City safety-service director Jonathan Hupp explained that it is often difficult to tell whether a driver is over or under the age of 18, and under the current Ohio law officers could easily pull someone over for texting or talking on a cell phone who is above the age of 18, and it would not be considered a primary offense.
Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, said he would support the ban on hand-held communications devices while driving within the city, but he questioned how drivers from other communities would know that Marietta has such a law.
Matthews said signs would have to be erected at all entrances to the city stating that a texting while driving ban is in effect within the city limits.
The four council members present at Tuesday's meeting agreed to support the proposed ordinance, including Councilmen Roger Kalter, D-1st Ward, Mike McCauley, D-2nd Ward, Denver Abicht, D-at large, and Vukovic.
Bertram said the next step will be to put together a draft ordinance and bring it for further discussion by the police and fire committee. He said council members would also have to decide what penalties to assess against drivers who violate the ordinance.
"Once we develop the law and potential penalties we would have a public hearing, then proceed from there," he said.