It's no April Fool's joke: Anyone driving in Canal Winchester won't be able to hold a cellphone beginning Wednesday, April 1, when a new ordinance takes effect in the city.

However, drivers can expect lenient enforcement as they adjust to the law, Mayor Mike Ebert said.

"We've distributed information on our website and issued a couple of press releases in helping residents prepare for it," he said. "I would imagine deputies would be giving warnings to begin with, but every situation is different."

The ordinance states that "no person shall operate a motor vehicle on any street, highway or property used by the public for purposes of vehicular traffic or parking while using in any manner an electronic wireless-communications device."

Those exempt from the law include city employees who may be responding to an emergency and drivers using "a handheld electronic wireless-communications device" in conjunction with a voice-operated or hands-free device feature or function on the vehicle.

Drivers found to be in violation of the law will be charged with a minor misdemeanor.

Canal Winchester's law mirrors the one Bexley enacted in 2017.

In November, Bexley Mayor Ben Kessler told Canal Winchester City Council members that police had issued more than 200 warnings and 82 citations since his city's law went into effect.

The Fairfield County Sheriff's Office provides police protection for Canal Winchester on a contract basis. One of the 11 deputies is assigned to traffic enforcement, Sgt. Jesse Hendershot said.

"I would say it's going to be a soft approach at first," he said of enforcing the new law. "Most people aren't going to know anything about it. For the first three months, if we stop somebody, we're likely going to give them a warning."

However, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic means officers are limiting contact with residents, Hendershot said.

Canal Winchester City Council supported the ban by a vote of 5-1, with former councilman Bruce Jarvis and council members Jill Amos, Will Bennett, Mike Coolman and Patrick Lynch supporting it. Councilman Bob Clark voted no, and councilman Mike Walker did not attend the meeting because of a death in the family.

At the time, Clark said, "the intent of the law is good. I just don't think this level of government is the appropriate place for this type of law."

The Hands-Free Ohio Bill introduced in the state legislature this year would ban the use of handheld wireless devices, something Gov. Mike DeWine supports.

Violators would face mandatory fines starting at $150 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500, plus license suspension, for the third offense.

A state law enacted in 2018 makes it easier for police to ticket drivers for distracted driving, a secondary offense. The new language broadened "distracted" to include any activity that is not necessary for driving, such as eating or adjusting the radio.

The punishment for anyone convicted of a distracted-driving offense under state law is a $100 fine or attending a distracted-driving safety course. Under current state law, texting while driving is illegal but is a primary offense only for drivers younger than 18.

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