Person holding phone in hand and gripping steering wheel

Ohio's New Hand’s Free Cellphone Law: What You Need to Know

On Behalf of Diehl & Hubbell, Attorneys at Law March 29, 2023

On January 3, 2023, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 288 into law, bolstering the state’s laws related to distracted driving. Learn about the new law and its changes before it takes effect on April 3, 2023.

The new law makes most instances of distracted driving, including holding and using a cellphone or other similar electronic devices while driving, a primary offense for all drivers in Ohio. As a result, the police can stop and immediately pull over someone just for being on their cellphone while behind the wheel. Drivers may still hold their phones while the car is not moving or swipe to answer a call and hold their phones to their ear while driving.

Distracted driving is a significant issue that has resulted in numerous crashes and fatalities, especially among teenagers. Since 2018, there have been 62,135 reported distracted driving crashes in Ohio, including 1,825 fatal and serious injuries. The Ohio State Highway Patrol reported that 34 people were killed due to distracted driving crashes in 2022, although distracted driving is underreported so that number is likely higher. Traffic fatalities generally have increased in eight of nine years from 2013 to 2021, with fatalities as high as 1,355 in 2021.

The new law and its tough penalties aim to deter and reduce distracted driving in Ohio. It is part of the Governor’s comprehensive efforts to improve the state’s road safety laws, prevent car crashes, and save lives. Other states that have enacted broad laws banning drivers from holding a cellphone while driving have seen a decrease in crash rates.

Current Law vs. New Changes

Under the current law, only teen drivers can be pulled over for using a cellphone while driving. The police are not allowed to stop adult distracted drivers unless they have committed another primary traffic offense, such as speeding or disobeying a traffic signal.

Under the new law, enforcement will expand to cover all drivers. The new law prohibits texting, watching, streaming, posting, or other cellphone interactions that are not subject to a specific exception or circumstance. Such specific circumstances include:

  • Drivers are allowed to use a phone while the car is not moving – when the car is parked or stopped at a red light; Drivers are allowed to swipe their phones to answer a call and to hold the phone to their ear during the phone conversation;

  • Use of a GPS function or navigation device is permitted as long as it is mounted on a dash or console and not held in the driver’s hand

  • Emergency calls are also permitted in all circumstances.

Notably, the new law also includes a reporting provision to guard against racial profiling. Specifically, law enforcement will be required to track and report racial data on traffic stops initiated for distracted driving violations.

Grace Period and Transition Phase

The law goes into effect on April 3, 2023. During the six-month grace period following the effective date, distracted drivers will be let off with a warning and the state will conduct a public education campaign on the law. Once this grace period is over, law enforcement will have the authority to issue citations.

Penalties include a fine of $150 for a driver’s first offense and two points on their license, or completion of a distracted driving safety course. The penalties and fines increase based on repeat offenses, including a fine of up to $250 for the second offense and up to $500 for the third offense within two years.

Know Your Rights Behind the Wheel

It is important to note when an officer stops a vehicle, they cannot search the cellphone or device for evidence of use without a valid warrant, or unless the owner gives clear and voluntary consent to the officer to access the device. Drivers have the right to decline a search of their device.

What to Do If You Need Help

If you or a loved one is injured as a result of a distracted driver, Diehl & Hubbell Attorneys & Counselors at Law can help you navigate your claim and get you the compensation you deserve. Call or visit us online to learn more.