“It’s a choice not to pay attention.”
— Judge Stephen Toner, Jr.
“If we get the phone out of the hand with clear laws that say you can’t do these things, just focus on driving, that’s when you see lives saved.”
— Jennifer Smith, stopdistractions.org
Eleven years ago, I wrote a column in this space that began with the sentence, “It’s time to put the phone away.” The Ohio House of Representatives had just passed a bill to penalize texting while driving by a vote of 82-12. Then-Gov. Kasich signed it a short time later. It made it illegal in Ohio to drive a motor vehicle on any street or highway “while using a handheld electronic wireless communication device to write, send or read a text-based communication.”
That ban was not a “primary offense.” That means that a law enforcement officer could not have pulled you over solely on the basis of an observation that you were texting while driving. However, if an officer stopped you for another offense such as speeding, then a second, separate offense could be filed for using the telecommunications device.
That loophole was closed earlier this year when the Ohio General Assembly made using a wireless telecommunications device a primary offense and created enhanced penalties if you seriously harm or kill someone while using one. The 2023 version of the law is now in effect, and we’re about midway through an initial grace period before full enforcement begins.
The current law has several particularities, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that you simply shouldn’t have your phone in your hand while you are driving a moving vehicle. You may use a hands-free device, may have the phone mounted to the dash for navigation, and may look at it while stopped. But anything that would take your eyes to the phone while the car is moving and the phone is in your hand is prohibited.
These kinds of laws are becoming much more common in the United States, and the penalties for them are getting harsher and harsher as it becomes clear that lesser penalties are not enough to convince people to put down their phones. Never have those penalties been on full display as much as they were in a Florida courtroom last month.
The Florida case dates back to 2016 when the Scherer family packed into their car for a weekend trip. They hit a traffic jam on I-75 and came to a stop. Unfortunately, the man in the car behind them, Gregory Andriotis, was not paying attention, and did not notice that traffic had stopped. His car’s computer showed that seconds before the crash he was accelerating, and witnesses behind him said that they saw no brake lights. One witness said the crash looked like an explosion of car parts.
The parents, sitting in the front of the vehicle, and further from impact, suffered a punctured lung, broken ribs, and bad cuts. Five year-old Mallory had a broken leg that needed a titanium rod inserted. But 9-year-old Logan, who would have been a newly licensed driver himself this spring had he survived the crash, was crushed between the crumpled rear left side of the vehicle and the driver’s seat, and died instantly.
With the technology that makes cell phones so enticing to use while driving also comes the technology to analyze what those cell phones are doing at any given moment. Andriotis wasn’t arrested for nearly a year-and-a-half after the crash as the investigation proceeded, and at his trial this spring, forensic analysts testified that in the moments before the crash, he searched for and downloaded the Microsoft Excel app on his phone. At the time he downloaded it, he was going 80 MPH on the interstate.
And in the seconds before the crash that took Logan’s life — at the time that he wasn’t braking, wasn’t looking, wasn’t paying attention — Adriotis’ eyes didn’t register the traffic jam because his last act before impact was to open the Excel app to begin to create a spreadsheet while driving at 80 MPH.
It took the jury only two hours to convict him, and last month, a judge in Florida gave him the maximum sentence — 15 years for vehicular homicide, five years each for the assault on each of Logan’s relatives, and all of them run together for a 30-year prison sentence. Thirty years because he was opening Excel instead of paying attention to the road.
Had the road been clear that day, Logan would still be alive. Had there been no traffic jam, Andriotis might still be free. But those are the vagaries of chance, not the decisions of the wise. If you choose to use your phone while driving, you put your fate firmly in the hands of chance and luck. That’s simply not a smart — or now legal — decision to make.
For the past 20 years I’ve presided over the juvenile traffic court docket. Each week around a dozen juveniles come into court with a parent to answer to a traffic citation ranging from speeding to running stop signs to operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Each time a juvenile is before the court because of a crash, I inquire about what caused it. Rarely does a week go by without a juvenile, or multiple juveniles, admitting that they got into a crash because they were looking at their phone, adjusting their radio, or otherwise distracted in their vehicle. In fact, nearly half of teen driver crashes involve cell phone use. But teens aren’t the only ones — distracted driving is a major issue in all age groups.
For your safety and the safety of everyone around you, it’s time to put the phone away.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.