Ohio bills look to increase roadway safety

| 8/18/2006

As state legislators in Ohio ready for the fall elections and try to make a good final impression for voters, several bills intended to make roadways safer remain under consideration in the statehouse.

One bill would impose restrictions on the use of automated cameras at intersections throughout the state. The changes could affect several cities.

Sponsored by Rep. Jim Raussen, R-Springfield, the bill would effectively ban cameras in the state used to catch speeders and reduce the amount of control local jurisdictions have on the operation of red-light cameras.

The bill initially called for an outright ban of red-light cameras. The provision has since been deleted and in its place is language to remove some of the profit incentives to use the devices.

As currently written, the measure prohibits the use of speed cameras, which currently are operated entirely at the discretion of local authorities. Police officers would be required to witness speeding violations and personally issue tickets to the offending drivers at the time of the incident.

It also ends the practice of paying camera vendors a portion of the fine amount. Instead, vendors would receive flat-rate contracts.

Opponents say provisions included in the bill would make the program too expensive and would force cities to contemplate scaling back camera use.

Supporters say the changes would alleviate concerns that the devices are being used primarily as a revenue generator for cities and other jurisdictions.

Raussen said studies have also indicated the cameras do not reduce accidents.

A study paid for by the U.S. Department of Transportation showed rear-end crashes actually increased in cities with red-light cameras, as motorists stopped abruptly at yellow lights to avoid tickets.

A provision in the bill is intended to address concerns that the cameras do more harm than good. It would require that if, after 24 months, accidents don’t decrease at intersections with the cameras, they must be removed.

Raussen’s bill – HB56 – is awaiting consideration on the Senate floor. If approved there, the bill would head back to the House for a final vote before moving to Gov. Bob Taft’s desk.

Another bill would allow for harsher penalties when cell-phone use causes a crash.

Sponsored by Sen. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, the bill would authorize drivers to be charged with vehicular assault or aggravated vehicular homicide – both felonies – if prosecutors believe phone use contributed to or caused a crash, The Associated Press reported.

The bill – SB317 – is in the Senate Judiciary Criminal Justice Committee.

Cates’ bill isn’t the only effort in the Ohio Legislature to address cell phone use in vehicles. Bills in the House and Senate would ban hand-held cell-phone use while driving. Emergency phone calls and talking on a “hands-free” device would still be permitted.

A separate bill would restrict when a teen can be behind the wheel and how many people can be in the vehicle with them.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Raga, R-Deerfield, the bill would restrict driving for those under age 18 with a temporary instruction permit. It would outlaw driving between midnight and 6 a.m. – a restriction now in place for those 17 and under.

Teens with probationary driver’s licenses between 17 and 18 years old would be prohibited from driving between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. Probationary license holders are exempted from the time restrictions if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The bill also would forbid drivers under 17 from having more than one passenger who is not a family member.

The House-approved bill – HB343 – is awaiting assignment to a committee in the Senate.

One other bill, while not directly related to highway safety, is intended to help deter some people from making the state’s roadways their own personal bathroom.

Sen. Kimberly Zurz, D-Green, introduced the bill that would hike the fine for tossing containers of human waste along highways in the state to $1,000 from the current $150. Repeat offenders would face increasing fines and possible suspension of driving privileges for 90 days.

Zurz said she was prompted to pursue the higher fines in Ohio after a state Transportation Department study found that nearly 1 million containers of urine are dumped annually along roads in the state.

The bill – SB306 – is in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.