FREDERICKTOWN — The Fredericktown Police Department is pursuing the toughest distracted driving policy in the county to date for peace officers.
The policy, adopted Nov. 8, bars FPD officers from using a cellphone or hands-free communication device while operating a motor vehicle while on duty, whether they are in a marked cruiser, their own vehicle, on public roadways or on private property. Before taking a call, the officer must pull over safely and be stationary.
FPD Chief Roger Brown said the policy came about because he and his officers were enforcing distracted driving laws, but were not themselves complying with it.
Stronger penalties in Ohio for distracted driving, approved in October, proved to be a tipping point, Brown said. The policy allows for exceptions in an emergency, which Brown said will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Cellphones have advantages in law enforcement for officers and the public. They make police more accessible, as dispatch can pass through a call straight to the officer’s phone, wherever they are.
In a small town like Danville, Police Chief Dan Weckesser is just a phone call away.
“A lot of people will call me because I’m usually around town somewhere,” Weckesser said. “If I’m not on duty, I’m usually at the garage or a game. It’s usually someone who sees something, and I can respond as quickly as if the call came over the radio.”
Danville Police are permitted to use their cellphones for emergency purposes only, Weckesser said. If it isn’t police related, they shouldn’t be on the phone.
Weckesser said he plans to update the DPD’s policy to hands-free only personal communications devices. Two patrol vehicles have the capability, but do not have the equipment installed, Weckesser said.
Brown said he does not want to give up officer’s abilities to take work-related calls. The new policy just means that the officer has to pull over before taking the call.
Other county law enforcement agencies have differing policies in place. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office restricts the use of cellphones to “matters of an urgent nature” and recommends deputies pull over. Hands-free communication devices may be used if the vehicle is set up for it.
The Mount Vernon Police Department does not have a strict policy on cellphone use, Chief Roger Monroe said.
Monroe said he would consider a specific policy on distracted driving. MVPD vehicles are equipped with mobile data terminals (MDTs) and information received through the terminals is “crucial for us to do our jobs,” Monroe said. The MDTs sometimes have to be viewed by officers when using them, Monroe said. The MDTs can be used for ‘silent dispatch’ — closed communication that does not go out over the radio — but since radio traffic has been encrypted, it is not used as often, Monroe said.
Brown has further recommended officers modify voice mail greetings to indicate they cannot answer the phone or text messages while driving and putting phones on silent while driving. He hopes Fredericktown officers will set an example that others will emulate.
The state’s distracted driving laws were made tougher by Ohio House Bill 95. The bill allows for additional penalties if it can be proved that the driver was using their cellphone, or was otherwise distracted, while committing a traffic offense. It allows for a judge to impose a $100 fine, or require completion of a distracted driving safety course.
Distracted driving remains a secondary offense under the new law, meaning the driver has to be pulled over for another moving violation.