Police ticket few Iowans for texting while driving

Ban in effect one year on July 1

Photo illustration shot in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 30, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)
Photo illustration shot in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 30, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)

There are no 40-digit phone numbers.

But often, when Iowa State Patrol Capt. Bob Conrad stops drivers on suspicion of texting after watching them manipulate a cellphone for several minutes while swerving, that’s their excuse.

“They stick it between their legs and say, ‘I was just dialing,’ ” Conrad said.

Sometimes Conrad can expose those lies by asking to see the phone’s log of recent calls. Sometimes he can’t. But one year after Iowa joined 38 other states with some form of a texting-while-driving ban, few people have been ticketed.

Conrad’s experience typifies enforcement difficulties that many officers have faced since the new law was enacted, and one legislator believes those challenges paired with weak citation numbers will boost arguments to amend the law within the next couple years.

The Iowa State Patrol issued 97 texting warnings to drivers between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011. Troopers have issued 96 tickets and another 48 texting warnings since July 1, 2011, when the new law officially went into effect.

Locally, the Linn County and Johnson County sheriff’s offices have issued just one texting-while-driving ticket each. Neither the Cedar Rapids nor Iowa City police departments have issued any tickets.

The Department of Transportation has recorded 119 convictions for texting while driving to date, including tickets issued by the State Patrol and authorities in county and city limits.

Officers say the law is difficult to enforce because, for starters, it’s not a primary offense. That means drivers have to be doing something else wrong — like speeding or swerving — before officers can pull them over. Secondly, the violation can be difficult to prove, Conrad said.

“A lot of people don’t want to admit fault,” he said. “They lie about it. It’s as simple as that.”

Iowa legislators passed the texting ban in 2010 — making it a secondary offense for adults and a primary offense for younger drivers — with the stipulation that officers would give only warnings for the first year before fining drivers starting July 1, 2011.

The penalty for texting is the same for all ages: a $30 fine, with harsher penalties if the behavior causes an accident with serious injury or death.

Iowa is one of just three states that made its texting ban a secondary offense. Texting behind the wheel is a primary offense in 35. states, Washington, D.C., and Guam — including neighboring states like Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

“Would it help to have a primary law? Yeah, I think it would,” Conrad said. “Anything we can do to make it easier for law enforcement to enforce the law is a good thing.”

Distracted-driver data

In considering whether to amend the texting ban to make it a primary offense, legislators will analyze distracted-related crash data, officials said. Iowa tallied 680 crashes involving drivers distracted by a phone or other device in the 2011 calendar year, and that number appears to be on the rise with 217 already registered in 2012, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Conrad said the number of motorists who text while driving is increasing with the rapid surge in mobile technology, and that means significant danger persists.

“As long as we have phones behind the wheel and we can check it when it dings ... it’s going to be an issue,” he said.

Still, Conrad said, he’s written about a dozen texting tickets since the law’s enactment, and he’s hopeful that just the act of passing legislation has curbed some of the driving offenses.

“Any time you make a law,” he said, “there will be certain people who will obey it just because it’s in place.”

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said he hopes drivers are curbing their texting simply because a law is on the books, but he hasn’t noticed a marked decline in drivers distracted by cellphones.

“Every trip I take that’s over a block or two, I see someone texting or manipulating their phone,” he said. “But without that primary enforceable offense, it’s difficult.”

The single citation in Linn County isn’t surprising to Gardner, who is among the law enforcement heads in favor of making Iowa’s law a primary offense. He said there are plenty of cases where officers can tell a driver is texting — eyes glued to the screen, looking up and down while manipulating their phone — and it would be nice if officers could stop those people.

“Do we need to wait until they commit some other violation to stop them from doing something that we know is a violation?” he said.

Back to Legislature

Rep. Dave Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, who sponsored the texting bill, said he expects the law will be back before the Legislature in a year or two on the recommendation to make it a primary offense.

“I think everyone has a full understanding that to put some teeth into this, you’re going to have to get away from that secondary enforcement and go to primary enforcement,” said Tjepkes, who’s retiring this year and leaving the challenge of pushing this law forward to someone else.

“I think eventually that is going to happen,” he said.

But, Tjepkes said, the Legislature will need more statistical proof and supporting testimony before buying into the notion that an upgrade is warranted.

Families affected

There already are several Iowa families who have spoken out about the heartache of losing someone to distracted driving.

Peggy Flockart of Mechanicsville, for example, lost her 17-yaer-old daughter Jennifer in 2010 when investigators said she went into the ditch and rolled her car while sending a text message.

But there are plenty of skeptics, Tjepkes said.

“Some people have the mindset that law enforcement has become too aggressive,” he said, adding that invasion of privacy issues and the difficulties of proving the offense has added to their concern. “It’s very tricky and a very difficult challenge, but we always depend on law enforcement to come up with good ways to enforce the law.”

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