A tough texting-while-driving ban being considered by Akron City Council is getting mixed signals.
A group of African-American ministers and the Akron chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) oppose the proposal, while others, including an Akron police detective whose daughter died in a crash he thinks was caused by cellphone use, support it.
Those on both sides of the proposed ban, which would be tougher than Ohio’s recently passed law, spoke during council’s Public Safety Committee meeting Monday. Council members haven’t yet taken any action on the ordinance, which was proposed by councilmen Mike Williams and Donnie Kammer.
The Akron legislation would make texting while driving a primary offense for drivers regardless of their age. The state law, which police will begin enforcing in March, makes texting a secondary offense for adult drivers, meaning they can only be pulled over if they are doing something else wrong. The law, however, makes texting or any use of electronic devices while driving a primary offense for those under the age of 18, which gives police the right to stop them just for this offense.
Det. Alan Jones told the committee he supports Akron’s ordinance because of his daughter’s death in June 2011. Ebony Jones, 24, of Akron, died after she lost control of her car, hit a concrete median and the vehicle flipped. Though he doesn’t know for sure, her father blames cellphone use for her accident.
“It’s my firm belief that her eyes were off the road and she was doing something with her cellphone,” Alan Jones said. “Because of that, this ended up being a fatality.”
Jones said he often sees people texting while driving and this practice causes many fender benders. He thinks the ability for officers to pull over drivers for texting could help.
“If we could just save one car — one individual — it’s well worth it,” he said.
Greg Harrison, however, a pastor at Antioch Baptist Church and a retired Akron police detective, thinks the legislation is too vague and could be used by police to target minorities. He compared it to a drug loitering law adopted in Akron and later struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court.
“The police could stop someone based on the belief they are texting,” said Harrison, who said he is one of several local black ministers concerned about the legislation. “It gives the police too much leeway.”
Harrison said the police might think a driver is texting when he or she is just drinking coffee or eating a Twinkie. He suggested that Akron wait to see how the state law works before adopting a more stringent texting ban.
“We are asking you to proceed with caution,” he said.
Darian Johnson, who is with the Akron chapter of the NAACP, said the organization also opposes the legislation and is prepared to muster serious resources against it if council moves forward. He said the group is concerned that the ban would be improperly used against people of all colors.
“This could be used to target the minority community and everybody in general — black, white, green, Hispanic,” he said.
Johnson said the Akron branch might appeal to the national NAACP for assistance if council adopts the legislation and would be willing to finance an attempt to repeal the ordinance.
Williams said the legislation isn’t racist. He said it is aimed at curbing a dangerous practice to try to stop crashes like the one that claimed Ebony Jones’ life.
“This is not a black law,” he said. “It is not a white law. It is a law to address the serious implication as it relates to texting and driving.”
Williams, who ran against Mayor Don Plusquellic in 2011 and often is at odds with the council majority, think politics are in play with the opposition to his legislation. Still, he thinks he has the support for several council members and would be willing to entertain changes to the legislation.
Several people weighed in on the texting legislation during the public comment portion of Monday’s council meeting.
The Rev. Melford Elliott of the Akron Ministerial Alliance told council he will muster his resources, including his weekly radio broadcast, against the proposed texting ban, which he called “phony, fake, frivolous legislation.”
“I’ve got my ear piece on, if you all want to lock me up,” he said, referring to his Bluetooth device, as he finished his remarks.
Effie Stewart, a longtime community activist, said she favors the legislation. She said when she’s driving and sees someone texting and veering into her lane, she wants to throw a bottle out the window to get the driver’s attention.
“Texting — we should do something about it,” she said.