Iowa Senate votes to toughen texting while driving law

New measure would include social media, checking email

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A broader effort to discourage drivers from using hand-held electronic communication devices while operating their vehicles was approved by the Iowa Senate on Tuesday.

Under Senate File 2289, drivers could be pulled over and fined if caught texting or using other activities, including checking email or social media, under the bill that passed on a 41-7 vote. Seven Republican senators voted against the measure.

“We have an epidemic of texting while driving,” said Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and floor manager of SF 2289.

Bowman’s original bill made texting while driving a primary offense, meaning police officers could pull over a driver suspected of texting without having broken another driving violation. Under the revised approach, Iowa drivers could continue to talk and drive, but engaging in any other form of electronic communication could result in being ticketed for a moving violation and a $30 fine.

Bowman proposed the change from “texting” to “electronic communication” to allow the state to keep up with the development of new forms of social media that can be accessed from cellphones while driving. He said the bill was narrowly tailored in hopes of getting the issue through the Iowa House and signed by Gov. Terry Branstad this session.

“If we don’t address (texting while driving), we’re going to see some real repercussions,” said Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, who voted for the bill that now goes to the Iowa House for consideration.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, tried unsuccessfully to revamp the bill to say “a person shall use common sense while operating a vehicle,” saying he was concerned about law changes designed to protect people “from their stupidity.”

“It’s going to get down to where we have to bubble wrap people,” Zaun said.

Bowman said Tuesday’s vote was a “step in the right direction” to help law officers crack down on drivers whose texting and other distractions endanger themselves and other people on roadways with behavior that is more dangerous than operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol.

The Iowa Department of Transportation reported 24 deaths between 2004 and 2013 were caused by crashes with distracted drivers. Three of those deaths occurred in 2013, according to DOT data.

The National Highway and Transportation Safety Association’s website reported 3,328 people where killed in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2012, down from 3,360 in 2011. The NHTSA estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes that involved a distracted driver.

Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Scott Bright said as a secondary law it’s “very difficult to enforce” because officers have to find a primary violation before pulling a driver over. Bright said state patrol officers issued under 50 citations for texting while driving in 2013.

“I see people texting every day when I come to work but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Bright said, adding the bills enactment will help make the roads safer.

There are 21 states that ban texting for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. However, only four consider text messaging a primary violation.

Iowa law currently bans all cellphone usage for teenagers while driving under restricted or intermediate licenses including instructional or school permits, which the Legislature passed in 2010.

Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he’s open to looking at the Senate-passed legislation.

“Any time you can make driving safer, it’s not a bad thing,” Byrnes said, adding he hopes advancing technology, like hands-free devices, will one day solve the issue.

However, he said he faced a challenge moving it through committee quickly given that Friday is the self-imposed deadline for non-money and policy bills to clear one chamber and a committee of the other house to remain eligible for consideration this session.

“Timing-wise, were kind of under the gun over here,” Byrnes said. “I wish they had sent it to us a week earlier.”

Reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this story.

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