Distracted driving gets legislative look

Opponents say the proposal would invite law enforcement to engage in discretionary stops

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DES MOINES – Iowa lawmakers are debating whether to allow law officers to issue distracted driving citations to cell-phone users.

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, told a Senate subcommittee that distractions like texting while driving have become “somewhat of an epidemic” on Iowa highways, but he expressed concern that the proposed language in Senate File 33 may be too broadly worded and encompass activities like changing a radio channel or eating a hamburger while driving.

Senate File 33 seeks to prohibit drivers from engaging in a distracting activity while operating a motor vehicle. The proposal 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 and bans cell-phone use outright for young drivers. Current law 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.

S.F. 33 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.

A person convicted of driving while distracted would be guilty of a simple misdemeanor punishable by a scheduled fine of $30. 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.

Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, expressed concern that the bill’s language might be too prescriptive, but he supported the idea of making distracted driving a moving violation. “If you’re weaving all over, they ought to be able to pull you over,” he said.

S.F. 33 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. The proposed law change 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.

Rita Bettis, legislative director and staff attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, said her group opposes the measure.

“We believe the bill will undermine traffic safety goals and can reasonably be expected to lead to discretionary traffic stops by police with disparate effects on persons of color,” she said.

“Research has shown that these laws are ineffective in reducing texting while driving, may have unintentional negative safety consequences, and invite law enforcement to engage in discretionary stops,” Bettis noted.

She also said there is evidence suggesting that distracted driving laws increase dangerous driving.

“Rather than not texting while driving, drivers tend to engage in more dangerous texting by lowering their hands to avoid detection by police. This leads to an increase in accidents, rather than reducing them,” Bettis said.

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, a subcommittee member who could not attend Tuesday’s meeting, later said he was supportive of the measure, so Bowman indicated he likely would schedule a second meeting to consider moving it to the full Senate Transportation Committee for consideration.

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