116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Sending a text message while driving down the road can get you pulled over and fined under a new Iowa law.
A couple of months in, some Iowa law enforcement officials say the law has been a useful tool in attempting to change drivers' behavior - in other words, to get drivers to stop texting.
But even more law enforcement officials say the new law is not strong enough; what's needed to truly make roads safer, they say, is an outright ban on using your hands to operate your phone while driving.
On July 1, Iowa law enforcement gained new powers to combat drivers who text when they should be paying attention to the road.
Now officers can stop a driver specifically for suspected texting - and not only if the driver were violating some other law, too. Violators face $30 fines.
'I think it's a good start,” said Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals. 'For compliance sake, we need to do a lot more education and try to ween everybody off their phone while they're driving.”
Distracted driving was a factor in 1,230 vehicle crashes and 11 traffic deaths in Iowa in 2016, according to state Department of Transportation data.
Nationally, distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives in 2015, according to federal transportation department figures.
Mobile phone use is at an all-time high in the United States: 95 percent of Americans had one in 2016, up from 65 percent in 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. And in a 2011 federal study, a third of drivers admitted they read or sent text messages from behind the wheel in the previous month.
With cellphone use and texting more common, most states have taken steps to address texting while driving. It is illegal in 47 states, and any handheld use of mobile phones is illegal in 14 states, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports.
Of the 47 states that ban texting while driving, 43 consider it a primary offense, something for which an officer can stop a vehicle. Iowa's new law moved the state into that category.
But some law enforcement agencies find the new law difficult to enforce and think it remains too weak.
Tony Wingert, with the Woodbury County Sheriff's Department, said the department has not yet issued a single texting-while-driving citation. He said that on rural roads it is more difficult to catch a driver in the act of texting.
Only three texting-while-driving citations were issued by the Linn County Sheriff's Office in July and August, according to Sheriff Brian Gardner.
Gardner is among the law enforcement officials who think the new state law is a good step but does not go far enough.
Many officials say it is difficult to cite a driver for texting because the law still allows some handheld phone use, including making calls and using navigation programs.
'The problem I think that we as law enforcement officers are going to have is to be able to convince a judge or a jury that in our view the person was texting as opposed to one of the allowable manipulations of the keypad,” Gardner said. 'I much would have preferred a hands-free driving bill where you're not allowed to manipulate the phone in your hand, you do it all through Bluetooth or through your vehicle. Yes, we did make gains in allowing this to be a primary offense, but it still has some enforcement concerns.”
Gardner said the best way to enhance public safety is to reduce the number of distractions for drivers, and one way to move toward that goal is to ban all handheld phone use while driving.
'I think that's the point we need to get to,” he said. 'Stop the distractions that exist while we're operating our vehicles. It's the distractions that lead to the accidents that we have, some fatal accidents that we've had.”
The Cedar Rapids Police Department also would support a hands-free law, according to Greg Buelow, the city's safety communications coordinator.
Cedar Rapids police issued 12 citations for using an electronic communication device while driving in July and August, Buelow said.
'While the new texting and driving legislation is an important step in the right direction, it is still can be challenging for an officer to discern whether or not someone is dialing the phone or using GPS functions on their phone, which is still allowed. As long as there is an exception to the law, it does create some challenges,” Buelow said in an email. 'Anything that causes a driver to not pay attention to the most important function at hand when operating a motor vehicle - which is the safe operation of the vehicle - can lead to issues.”
Terry Branstad, who then was Iowa's Republican governor, came out in January in favor of an outright handheld ban. But the votes were not there in the Legislature to approve it.
Opponents argued such a ban would discriminate against poor people who could not afford cars with hands-free technology, and that a ban might increase racial profiling. And it would not address other big distractions for drivers - like rambunctious kids in the back seat and ostentatious signs by the side of the road.
Iowa Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, who leads the Iowa Senate's transportation committee, said he supports a more robust handheld ban and he thinks lawmakers will continue to debate such proposals.
He was less sure there are enough votes in support of a ban.
'I think that we will continue to explore that possibility, and I think that's the best way to handle it,” Kapucian said. 'Whether there's the wherewithal in the Legislature to pass that, I don't know at this time if there's enough votes to get that through. ...
'(Texting while driving) is a problem. Whether (a handheld ban) happens or not I don't know, but I think personally that's the way I'd like to see it go.”