Experts: More can be done to lower Iowa's traffic fatalities

Driving deaths at 70-year low in state

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Drivers made history on Iowa’s roadways in 2013.

You’d have to go back 70 years to 1944 — a time when fuel was rationed and assembly lines were churning out military equipment instead of cars to support the war effort — to find a year with fewer motor vehicle fatalities. There were 310 fatalities that year and 317 as of Tuesday, down from the five year average of 382.

“We’re feeling very good about traffic safety in Iowa (in 2013),” said Patrick Hoy, chief of the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau (GTSB).

A number of reasons exist why fatalities are so low in Iowa. Vehicles have become safer. Laws have been put in place to discourage distracted driving.

And the state touts a 93 percent seatbelt compliance rate, one of the best in the country, according to the GTSB.

“I don’t want to brag or anything, but we’re pretty darn good here in Iowa,” said Mark Nagel, occupant protection coordinator with the GTSB. “It’s not us, it’s the drivers.

"We’re trying to figure out ways to get that last seven percent. That’s tough.”

While the state’s fatality numbers in 2013 are certainly cause for celebration, those involved with public safety said there is more that can be done to lower those statistics. Hoy said safety officials look at five areas:

  1. Engineering
  2. Technology
  3. Education
  4. Enforcement
  5. Legislation.

The first four realms are relatively straightforward — re-engineering roads through resurfacing and improved barriers; improving the technology in cars to make them safer; continuing with public information campaigns, such as the electronic message boards on the interstate; and enforcing the laws that are in place.

“Enforcement is always going to be one of the major keys,” Hoy said. “When they look at states that are going to be successful, it’s states that have high visibility of enforcement.”

Where things get a little murkier is in the legislature. Some experts said some form of motorcycle helmet law — Iowa is one of only three states, along with Illinois and New Hampshire, with no such measure — and a seatbelt law requiring all passengers regardless of age to be buckled up would lead to a further drop in motor vehicle fatalities.

However, while a seatbelt law could eventually become reality, a helmet law appears less likely.

“There’s not going to be any legislation requiring adult motorcyclists to wear a helmet,” said state Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

Iowa’s seatbelt law requires people of all ages in the front seats to buckle up, but only those 17 and younger in the backseat to strap in. John Lundell, deputy director of the University of Iowa’s Injury Prevention Research Center, said that age cut-off doesn’t make a lot of sense.

“Lots of studies show that there’s no scientific evidence for why, when you turn 18, you’re safe not to be belted in,” said Lundell. “You still become a missile … or, in the event of a rollover crash, you end up getting thrown out of the vehicle.”

Lundell called an all-ages seat belt law a “no brainer.” The state does not track deaths of motor vehicle passengers not buckled in or injuries caused by other airborne passengers.

However, the state does track motorcycle crashes and fatalities. In 2013, there were 39 crashes resulting in 42 fatalities. Of those who were killed, 32 weren’t wearing a helmet, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

In 2012, 56 people were killed on motorcycles. Of those, 42 were not wearing a helmet.

Motorcycle riders "just don’t feel that should be mandated,” Hoy said. “Part of that is person preference. For whatever reason, there just hasn’t been a strong will to push toward that.”

State Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boon, is among those opposed to requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

“I just figure there becomes a time when government, in my opinion, becomes overreaching,” Behn said. “There’s an aspect of, 'How far should the government go to protect you from you?'”

Behn said while there might not be a “technical law” governing helmet usage, parents can exercise control over their teenagers and require them to wear a helmet on a motorcycle.

Behn, who also is opposed to changing the state’s seatbelt laws, noted that, “I don’t want to make it inconvenient for regular people to do regular things."

But one change Behn would like to see is an increase in the speed limits on the interstate to 75 or 80 mph while ramping up enforcement on Iowa’s roadways.

“I would rather set a speed limit at a reasonable level that is truly a speed limit, then enforce it,” he said. “Otherwise, it makes it a tendency where people look at laws and say, ‘Is that really the law?” You can have laws for everything, but if you don’t enforce them, they’re just suggestions.”

Sen. Bowman, however, sees changes to the seatbelt law happening in Iowa eventually, particularly if vehicles that don’t have seatbelts for every passenger are grandfathered in. However, he sees those changes coming from Washington, D.C., rather than Des Moines.

“It will probably come from the federal government, tied with road funding,” Bowman said.

In the meantime, Bowman said there are other measures on the way that could lower fatalities. He points to a law recently passed in Arizona that allows law enforcement to stop drivers that are not maintaining complete control of their vehicles.

He said the Department of Transportation also is looking at an app that would allow parents to prevent their teenage drivers from texting while driving.

Finally, Jan. 1 marked the introduction of the state’s new graduated driver’s license program, which places more restrictions on teen drivers.

“Hopefully this continues to allow us to decrease the fatalities,” Bowman said. “Even though we have more traffic on the road, hopefully some of these laws will have a positive impact.”

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