Driving school

Distracted driving bills stagnate as Iowa road deaths rise

A motor vehicle control vehicle destroyed by the Iowa Department of Transportation is displayed June 8, 2021 outside the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines during a press conference announcing the task force on reducing road accidents in Iowa. (Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register via AP)

Road deaths are on the rise in Iowa, and law enforcement officials believe the state’s difficult-to-enforce distracted driving laws play a role.

There have been 198 fatalities in crashes on Iowa highways so far this year, the Iowa Department of Transportation reported Thursday. This is an increase of almost 9% from the five-year average of 181 fatalities and more than 5% from the 187 road deaths last year during the same period.

Distracted driving deaths are ‘underreported’

The Iowa Department of Public Safety supports hands-free driving legislation, which has stalled in Iowa for the past four legislative sessions.

Distraction by an electronic device has been implicated in up to 14 deaths per year in Iowa between 2015 and 2020, according to the Iowa DOT. Overall in 2020, nearly 2% of all motor vehicle accidents in Iowa involved drivers distracted by a phone or other electronic device. But the numbers may not tell the whole story, according to law enforcement officials.

“We’re just trying to really reduce our death rate here in Iowa,” said Ryan DeVault of the Iowa State Patrol. “And honestly, the distracted driving stats that anyone can look at, we law enforcement think are probably underreported.”

Current Iowa law prohibits texting and driving, as do nearly all states, but drivers over 18 can make phone calls and use navigation systems while driving. Thirty states have laws prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving.

A hands-free driving bill was introduced in the Iowa Senate in January 2019. Three years later, the hands-free bill under consideration was Senate Docket 2141, with a similar counterpart to the House, File 2129. Neither these hands-free bills. nor a House bill banning the use of portable electronic communication devices in schools or roadwork areas, passed the Iowa House or Senate.

Current Iowa law is difficult to enforce

Hands-free bills would prohibit the use of electronic devices while driving, with exceptions for voice-activated or hands-free mode and certain situations, such as receiving a weather or emergency alert. The Senate bill’s counterpart also includes an exception for access to fleet management systems. Violating the proposed law would result in a fine and a travel violation, which the bill says can qualify as a driver’s license suspension or for repeat offender status.

DeVault said the hands-free bill would be “more enforceable for us because you either have a phone in your hand or you don’t.”

Dave MacFarland of the Iowa State Police Association said people can use exceptions in current law for uses that “we know are dangerous.”

“So currently what we have in place now is very difficult for officers to enforce,” MacFarland said. “So if you see someone on the phone, it’s hard to tell from…behind them or even beside them: what are they doing?”

MacFarland said most of the time when officers in his department get a warrant to prove someone was using their phone, the case involves serious injury or death.

According to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll conducted between Feb. 28 and March 2, about 70 percent of Iowans support banning the use of handheld devices while driving. All but one of the lobbyists registered their position on one of three hands – free bills were in favor or undecided.

Why the invoices have not advanced

Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge, the House hands-free bill lead, said a poll of lawmakers found enough support in the House to pass the bill. But there wasn’t enough support in the House Ways and Means Committee, she said, which reviewed it.

Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel, vice-chairman of the committee, said he thought the committee was not necessarily against the bill and that the main concern was “different potential reasons why someone might being stopped for not using hands-free,” like checking a watch.

“Some of these questions weren’t 100% answered for all of our ways and means committee members, and that’s why it didn’t move forward,” Nordman said.

Rep. David Jacoby, D-Coralville, the highest-ranking member, said he wants the House hands-free bill sent to a subcommittee, where lawmakers can discuss the bill and hear the audience.

Meyer also said she could still have moved the bill forward on the House floor. But she said its leaders had said that if the bill were introduced and passed, the Iowa Senate would not accept it.

“I’m coming back with the same bill next year,” Meyer said.

Senator Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, was the leader of the bill in the Senate. He said it appeared the Senate leadership wasn’t interested in passing it because “there isn’t a high level of interest in the House,” he said in early April. The counterpart to the Senate Hands-Free Driving Bill passed the Transportation Committee unanimously in January, but was returned to the committee in March.

Senator Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, said in an email that he had been working on this bill for three years and that members of both houses had shown him “strong support” in the investigations he had. carried out. He thinks there must be members of the legislative leadership opposed to hands-free legislation, “because it was never allowed to pass.”

“With the election coming up in November, leadership changes and committee assignments will take place and we can see what kind of support this legislation will have going forward,” Lofgren said. “I will continue to work to pass this legislation and I am confident that we will be successful in making Iowa’s roads safer to travel.”

House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl declined to comment, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Waylon Brown and House Speaker Pat Grassley did not respond to requests for comment.

This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch.