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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Fresh off failing to meet their annual traffic fatality goal, Iowa law enforcers are setting a new objective — to crack down on distracted driving.
Public safety officials say they will lobby the Iowa Legislature next year to beef up the state law against using a cellphone at the wheel. While current Iowa law prohibits texting while driving, state police want to outlaw all use of hand-held devices by most drivers.
“It’s incredibly difficult to enforce what we have on the books right now,” Stephan Bayens, commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, recently told The Gazette’s Rod Boshart.
There is a powerful instinct in American politics to ban things that are bad. Someone ought to make a law, people often say. Unfortunately, bans often fail to address the issue at hand while also producing negative unintended consequences.
Iowa police can’t just enforce their way to zero traffic fatalities.
It is obvious that distracted driving is associated with automobile crashes but the connection between state laws and highway safety is much less clear.
“Most studies seem to agree that hand-held bans have been somewhat effective in reducing hand-held phone use, but the evidence does not point to a reduction in crashes,” National Conference of State Legislatures scholars wrote this year in an overview of distracted driving laws.
Similarly, researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety say “It's not clear that banning hand-held phone use and texting reduces crashes.” The case for banning talking on a cellphone, as Iowa law enforcement officials are proposing, is particularly weak, they note.
Just a couple weeks ago, Iowa eclipsed the 300 traffic deaths set by state police as a goal for 2021. Leaders held a press conference in June, flanked by uniformed state troopers, to announce their plans to hone in on people driving at excessive speeds.
Despite their best efforts, though, Iowa is on track to exceed the traffic death average from the past five years. Iowa police can’t just enforce their way to zero traffic fatalities.
Iowa legislators advanced bills last year to ban hand-held devices while driving but they never earned full approval from either chamber, held up by the on-again, off-again libertarians in the Republican caucus.
When Iowa last strengthened its distracted driving restrictions in 2017, the ACLU of Iowa warned it would be ineffective and invasive and would invite racial profiling. A law passed by the Legislature that year made texting and driving a primary offense, meaning an officer can initiate a traffic stop when no other violation has been observed.
Any law that aims to increase police traffic stops runs the risk of being enforced disproportionately by race. The limited data we have in Iowa shows people of color are more likely to be pulled over by police and also more likely to be searched when they are stopped.
These laws also can give rise to cockamamie enforcement projects, like state troopers dressing up like the Village People or riding shotgun in RVs to catch drivers texting.
“You just never know when ISP is watching,” an Iowa State Patrol spokesman wrote in a 2017 news release promoting the department’s undercover work.
It’s like Elf on the Shelf but for adults. Creepy? No, it’s for your safety.
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