Driving distractions get Iowa lawmakers' attention

“We need to be careful that that discretion doesn't trample the basic rights"

DES MOINES – A public safety officer came to the Legislature Wednesday armed with statistics related to inattentive driving, but it was unclear whether lawmakers are willing to move beyond the current balance between safety concerns and individual freedom this session.

Patrick Hoye, chief of the Iowa Governor’s Transportation Safety Bureau, spent a half hour detailing the dangers of distracted driving, noting there were 7,357 crashes that resulted in 3,450 injuries and 26 deaths on Iowa roadways between 2003 and 2012.

As a risky behavior, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now says driving a vehicle while texting is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated, Hoye told members of the Senate Transportation Committee.

He noted that at any daylight moment across America, about 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or other electronic devices while driving and that texting is particularly dangerous because it entails all three types of distractions that reduce the driver’s vision, takes an operator’s hands off the wheel and takes a driver’s mind off the task of driving.

“Distracted drivers endanger not only themselves and their passengers but everyone else on the road and any bystanders,” he said.

Hoye said the top legislative priority voted by the Joint Public Safety Board – comprised of firefighters, peace officers, state troopers, sheriffs, deputies and others – is to address distracted driving and a primary texting law.

Officials with the state Department of Public Safety officials say distracted driving is a growing concern and they plan to push this session for ways to strengthen enforcement of state laws designed to keep motor-vehicle operators focused on their responsibilities while occupying the driver’s seat.

Currently, Iowa law bans texting for all drivers and bars teenagers operating vehicles under restricted or intermediate licenses, as well as instructional or school permits, from using cellphones or electronic devices while driving. The violation is a simple misdemeanor punishable by a $30 scheduled fine, although there 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.

The current Iowa 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 -- 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.

Committee chairman Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, called distracted driving a “big, big problem.” But Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, who was floor manager when the Senate debated the texting ban, said there was a resistance to giving law officers too much discretion in deciding what constitutes a distracted-driving violation and he believes that tension still exists.

“There are a lot of gray areas,” said Danielson. “I think if we could get a broad distracted driving statute and address some of the concerns about discretion and the penalties that come after that, I think it’s worth a conversation.”

However, he said the last legislative debate was not able to balance the loss of rights versus the public safety aspects of restricting inattentive behavior.

“I think that’s still going to be a part of that discussion,” Danielson said. “We need to be careful that that discretion doesn’t trample the basic rights. That’s always the tension in that argument.”

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