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Ohio city's distracted driving law could restrict eating, drinking behind the wheel

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Next month, Ohio is set to become the latest state to ban texting behind the wheel, but if you’re passing through the city of Bowling Green, you could get a ticket for doing a lot more than that.

The city council is mulling a measure that would go beyond the state's upcoming ban by making it illegal to drive “without giving full time and attention to the operation of the vehicle.” Critics say the proposal is so broad police could pull over a driver for doing just about anything, including taking a sip of pop.

At a public reading of the bill, councilman and local attorney Greg Robinette said “the broad language of the legislation could expand to simple actions like adjusting the radio or staring at the side mirror too long, which would violate the ordinance,” according to the BG News.

But the architect of the proposed law, Councilman Daniel Gordon, told FoxNews.com that the state ban, which takes effect Aug. 30, is deficient, treating texting as only a secondary offense for adults, and that the Bowling Green ordinance would give law enforcement more flexibility in dealing with distracted drivers. Bowling Green Police Chief Brad Conner agrees.

“From outside the car, an officer can’t tell if someone is sending a text message or dialing a phone number, so the state law essentially unenforceable,” Conner said.

The penalty for violating the city law has not yet been determined, but it would be dealt with as a minor misdemeanor offense.

Bowling Green City Prosecutor Matt Reger, who helped draft the language of the ordinance says it was based on similar laws already on the books in other cities in Wood County, where Bowling Green is the county seat.

City Councilman Robert McComber, who supports the concept of the ordinance, but hasn’t yet decided how he’ll vote, trusts that the police will use proper discretion when enforcing it. He said he’s heard of officers witnessing people shaving behind the wheel and being unable to pull them over because they weren’t violating a specific law.

“This isn’t about banning people from eating or drinking while driving, but preventing them from trying to do both while steering the car with their knees or thighs,” McComber said.

But John Bowman, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, whose group says more education, not more laws, is the answer to distracted driving, says that if restrictions are going to be established they need to be spelled out better than the Bowling Green proposal.

“Distracted driving takes place when a driver exhibits clear behavior that is either hazardous or shows recklessness on the road, so it needs to be defined,” Bowman said, adding that police should give out warnings rather than citations to better educate motorists on the dangers of their actions.

Jonathan Adkins, Communications Director for the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration, a strong advocate for handheld cell phone and texting bans, said his organization believes distracted driving should be dealt with on the state level because a patchwork of local laws like the Bowling Green proposal can confuse the public.

Gordon says the City Council will hold a few more meetings and hearings regarding the ordinance before it is put to a vote, probably by early September. Regardless of the outcome, McComber thinks the issue has become a “tempest in a teapot.”

“I don’t think the way people drive is going to change significantly whether the law passes or not,” McComber said, “and I’m a lot more concerned about how I’m going to balance the budget for 2013.”