Wife of victim pleads for change in habits as distracted driving law begins

State unveils public awareness campaign; Warren County has most distracted driving citations in Ohio so far this year

On the eve of an Ohio driver safety law taking effect, state officials turned to a Shelby County woman to recount how a distracted driver impacted the lives of her family.

“There’s nothing that you’ve ever done on your phone at any point in time that is worth killing somebody for,” said Leah Fullenkamp, whose husband was killed in June 2018 when his tractor was rear-ended by a driver in an SUV who was shopping online. In one day, Fullenkamp became a widow and a single mother with four children.

“We spend so many hours on social media and app companies spend a lot of money keeping us looking at our phones,” she said. “Through crash reconstruction, it was determined that the driver had about 16 seconds to look up before the crash.”

Fullenkamp’s comments were part of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s kickoff of the new distracted driving campaign that starts Tuesday with a six-month warning period to drivers seen using any wireless electronic device while driving.

Fullenkamp said drivers should activate the “Do Not Disturb” mode on their phones, or put their phones in the glove compartment before driving somewhere. She called the new law “a huge accomplishment” and said she hopes her family’s story doesn’t become your family’s story.



The new law gives law enforcement the ability to pull over a distracted driver as a primary offense. After six months of warnings, starting on Oct. 5, citations will be issued with a penalty of a $150 fine and two points on the motorist’s driving record.

The penalty increases with a second or third offense, and there is a two-year lookback period. If the violation is in a construction zone, the penalties are doubled.

Under the previous law, distracted driving was a primary offense only for juvenile drivers, preventing officers from stopping adult distracted drivers unless those drivers also committed a separate primary traffic violation, such as speeding or running a red light.

“Distracted driving crashes aren’t accidents, they’re the result of drivers who make the choice to divert their attention away from the road and risk their lives and the lives of everyone around them,” DeWine said. “Far too many people have been seriously injured and killed in Ohio because of poor choices behind the wheel, and we are certain that this new law will influence positive changes in behavior and save lives as a result.”

The new educational campaign encourages Ohio drivers to ‘Lock Your Screen Before You Rock the Road’ and includes a new website, billboards, printable posters, fact sheets, presentation slides, tip cards, and social media, radio, and television advertisements. Additional materials relay the simple, important message of ‘Phones Down. It’s the Law.’

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

As of Monday, the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s online OSTATS dashboard has recorded 2,058 secondary offense violations for distracted driving statewide from Jan. 1 to April 3, 2023, which is up from 1,993 for the same time period a year ago.

Area counties where the highway patrol has issued the most distracted driving citations include Warren County with 103; Butler County with 56; Clark County with 38; Clinton County with 29; Montgomery County with 21; Miami County with 13; Greene County with 11; Shelby and Preble counties with 3; Champaign County with 1; and Darke County with zero.

Warren County leads the state for the number of distracted driving citations issued with 103, followed by Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, with 101, according to Monday’s dashboard update.

New research from Nationwide Insurance found that 42 percent of Ohio drivers surveyed admit making a phone call on a handheld device while driving, 25 percent say they’ve texted while driving, 10 percent have video chatted, and 5 percent admitted to watching TV or a movie while driving.

“There is nothing worse than having to knock on a door and inform someone that their loved one isn’t coming home. We know distracted driving is dangerous, and we are hopeful that this new law will be a reminder of that,” said Col. Charles Jones, Ohio State Highway Patrol superintendent.

According to the highway patrol, distracted driving has caused at least 62,324 crashes and 209 deaths in Ohio over the past five years to April 3, although distracted-driving crashes are believed to be significantly underreported. Over the same five-year period to April 3, troopers have issued more than 41,330 distracted driving citations as a secondary offense.

“This goes beyond just texting. We’re now seeing drivers watching videos, updating social media, and browsing the web. When a driver chooses to look at their phone, they are impacting every single person on the roadway,” said Jack Marchbanks, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation.

ODOT is also installing signage to educate motorists about the law at locations across the state. These include 45 signs at the state border on interstates and U.S. highways and 19 signs at exits near airports in Akron, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo.

There are some exceptions to the law, including allowing adult drivers to make or receive calls while using a hands-free device. Adult drivers are also permitted to use GPS if they begin navigation before getting on the road.

Adult drivers are still permitted to hold a phone directly to their ear for a phone call, but devices may only be activated with a single touch or swipe while driving.

Adult drivers are also permitted to hold or use electronic devices while stopped at a traffic light or parked on a road or highway during an emergency or road closure. Both adults and juveniles can use phones at any time to report an emergency to first responders.

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