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Stark County adopts new electronic device policy

To ensure the safety of area motorists, a new distracted driver policy was recently adopted for Stark County employees. The policy prohibits employees from using electronic devices that would cause them to take their hands off the steering wheel or their eyes off the road. Ken Zander, Stark County commissioner, pushed for the policy to be put in place. "It's something that has become a serious issue across this country," Zander said. The new policy addresses laptops, MP3 players and all electronic equipment, but cell phones seem to be the main concern. "When you're texting, your hands are texting when you should be using them to control your vehicle," Zander said. "The other issue, why it's become so important, as far as my interest in seeing the county develop this policy, is that we want to encourage our employees to think safety when they're operating a motor vehicle." Tom Henning, Stark County state's attorney, said there haven't been any issues with employees using electronic devices while driving. "I would say that the commission is being proactive in trying to ward off future issues by saying 'this is unsafe, we need to recognize that it's unsafe and we need our employees to recognize it's unsafe, so lets just say that this is unacceptable,'" Henning said. Stark County pays for 33 cell phones for its employees, including compensation for nine employees who use their own cell phone, said Lynn Betlaf, Stark County clerk. The average bill is $20 to $25 a month per phone, Betlaf said. County employees began using cell phones for their jobs eight to nine years ago, Betlaf said. Before using phones, many employees communicated via radio, and still do. However, cell phones make things more convenient for employees, said Clarence Tuhy, Stark County sheriff. "With a cell phone, if people want to talk to an officer, we can patch them through to a cell phone and they can talk to an officer right in the vehicle ...," Tuhy said. "They can be out in the county taking care of their responsibilities they have to do instead of having to come into the office and call an individual." If a hands free device is not used, county employees must pull over to the side of the road when driving to answer a cell phone or use other electronic equipment, according to the policy. If an employee violates the policy, disciplinary measures are taken. The first violation leads to a written warning, the second violation equals suspension without pay and the third violation will lead to the employee's termination. "It's kind of self-policed," said Tom Henning, Stark County state's attorney. "The policy has a particular point and I would say enforcement is going to be essentially by the department heads and just by self-policing." However, Tuhy said officers will continue using their cell phones while driving. "There's times where we just can't be pulling over, talking on the cell phone because its going to shorten our response time to a situation that we need to get to in a hurry," Tuhy said. "It's just part of the job." Henning added the policy offers officers a loophole, leaving "certain job requirement situations" up to employees' discretion. "The ones that have to do emergency operations, they're trained in this, Henning said. "But if you're not trained in trying to communicate at the same time you're tearing off in an emergency, it just presents too much opportunity for injury and losses simply because of the divided attention problem."