Transportation may drive legislative debate

Moped helmets, cellphone citations and speed limits all under consideration

DES MOINES - Lawmakers are hitting several transportation hot buttons this session with bills seeking to require young moped riders to wear helmets, allow law officers to issue distracted driving citations to cell-phone users and raise the speed limit on two-lane highways from 55 to 60 mph.

Senate File 37 seeks to require a person under 18 years of age to wear a safety helmet when operating a motorized bicycle. The bill specifies that the safety helmet must meet federal standards for motorcycle helmets and must be worn by the driver at all times when the motorized bicycle is in motion.

A violation of the helmet requirement would be a simple misdemeanor punishable by a scheduled fine of $100.

“Head injuries in scooter accidents create brain injuries and other serious injuries, including death,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, one of the bill’s six co-sponsors. “It just seems to me that it’s common sense when you’re flying around on a moped to have a helmet on. I hope that we can get a good debate on it this session.”

A similar bill, pushed by students from Iowa City West High School and safety proponents, failed to clear the subcommittee level last session. The West students were motivated to push for a helmet law after the August 2011 death of Caroline Found, 17, of Iowa City, who died after the moped she was operating struck a curb near a curve on Mormon Trek Boulevard and then struck a tree in the median.

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he was willing to have a subcommittee consider the issue again in the 85th General Assembly, which has 38 new members. He noted that the West High students “came here, they had a mission, they came up short, they’re going to get another opportunity to convince legislators and see if anything has changed.”

A separate bill sponsored by Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, seeks to prohibit drivers from engaging in a distracting activity while operating a motor vehicle.

Senate File 33 would repeal the current law which bars a person from using a hand-held electronic communication device to write, send, or read a text message while driving a motor vehicle that is only enforceable as a secondary action when a peace officer stops or detains a driver for a suspected violation of another motor vehicle law. The proposed law in its place would establish a broader offense of driving while engaged in a distracting activity, which is defined to mean any activity that is not immediately necessary to the operation of the motor vehicle and that impairs, or could reasonably be expected to impair, the person’s ability to drive safely.

The bill specifies that the use of a wireless telephone is a distracting activity. It would not apply to a driver when the motor vehicle is at a complete stop off the traveled portion of the roadway and it would not apply to members of public safety agencies while engaged in the performance of official duties.

Johnson’s proposal would make driving while distracted enforceable as a primary offense, but a violation could not be considered by the state Department of Transportation for purposes of driver’s license suspensions or habitual offender determinations. A person convicted of driving while distracted would be guilty of a simple misdemeanor punishable by a scheduled fine of $30.

“Distraction is a growing issue,” said Johnson, who conceded that he did not expect his bill to go very far in the legislative process.

“My intent would be that it offers some discretion to law officers,” he said. “I didn’t intend it to be a ban on anything. It’s a matter of offering officers cause to stop the driver and insure that they’re driving safely.”

Bowman said he believed the issue was worthy of a subcommittee hearing to hear from law officers and others about problems associated with distracted driving.

“Too many Iowans are dying needlessly by the distractions, specifically texting,” said Bowman, who noted that he makes a three-hour drive back and forth from Maquoketa to Des Moines each week and during that trip “I have to push that phone out of my reach so I’m not tempting to just pick it up and check.”

Current Iowa law bans texting for most drivers and bars teenagers operating vehicles under restricted or intermediate licenses as well as instructional or school permits from using cell phones or electronic devices while driving. The distracted driving violation for texting is a simple misdemeanor punishable by a $30 scheduled fine. There also are enhanced fines and licensure sanctions for texting violations involving an accident that caused property damage, serious injury or death ranging up to $1,000 and a 180-day license suspension.

On another transportation front, Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pierson, has filed a bill seeking to increase the speed limit on two-lane primary and secondary roads from 55 to 60 mph.

Anderson said he has had constituents request the legislation and he believes the higher speed limit would more closely follow the current flow of traffic on two-lane roads without raising safety concerns.

“People pass me all the time on the two-lane roads and I probably go 60,” he said.

Anderson said he was not optimistic that Senate File 11 would move very far in the legislative process. “My sense is it probably won’t go anywhere. Make somebody say no, I guess,” he said.

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