116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES - The phone rings in the car. The driver picks it up and answers the call.
In Iowa, that soon could be illegal.
The state once again is examining its distracted-driving laws.
Last year, proposed legislation that prohibited texting while driving fizzled out with state lawmakers.
This year, legislators are taking another look, and they'll be considering a new, stronger proposal pitched by the state Department of Public Safety. The new measure prohibits all electronic communication - including making calls - unless the driver uses a hands-free device.
The proposal's first hearing with a panel of state lawmakers is scheduled for this week.
'We are seeing that not only in Iowa but nationwide that the states that get a handle on distracted driving are seeing a reduction in serious injuries and fatalities,” said Patrick Hoye, the governor's Traffic Safety Bureau chief. 'Not only the data, but you can see it with your own eyes every day when you travel to and from work.”
Hoye said that, according to Iowa Department of Transportation data, more than two-thirds of deaths on the state's roads in 2013 involved a lane departure.
'We think there's a direct correlation between distracted driving and some of those percentages,” Hoye said.
The three distractions
Roughly nine people nationwide are killed and more than 1,100 injured every day in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, according to federal statistics.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list three types of distractions for drivers:
' Taking one's eyes off the road
' Taking one's hands off the wheel
' Taking one's focus off driving
Using a hand-held mobile device while driving, safety officials warn, activates all three distractions.
If Iowa passes the new proposal into law, it would join 13 other states with a hand-held mobile device ban, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Administration.
And while Iowa is among the 44 states that currently bans texting while driving, it also is among the five for which that is a secondary offense. That means an officer may not stop a driver for texting, but a motorist may be cited for texting while driving after being stopped for a separate offense.
Law enforcement officials say the current law is virtually unenforceable.
'The big issue that I can see that we have is if it's a primary offense, that makes it easier for our officers if they see somebody on a phone, or doing something like that, to make a stop,” said Rick Host, a retired police officer who lives in Des Moines and is secretary and treasurer of the Iowa State Police Association.
Host said expanding the law to include hands-on phone calls also will make it more enforceable by eliminating any potential ambiguity over whether a driver was texting or entering numbers to make a call.
'It's the old adage that, a lot of times, even up to and including a homicide investigation, we may know who did it, but if we don't have the evidence we can't prosecute,” Host said. 'With the texting and driving, that's providing credible evidence to the judge that (the driver was) in fact doing that. It's difficult.”
‘Negative safety consequences'
Many are opposed to stronger distracted driving laws. Opponents argue the laws give law enforcement too much leeway to make a stop and could represent a threat to civil liberties.
'We believe this law would lead to an increase in pretextual discretionary stops by law enforcement,” Rita Bettis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said in a statement. 'Additionally, research has not shown that these laws are effective in reducing talking and texting while driving.
'In fact, they may have unintentional negative safety consequences.”
A 2014 study published by the American Journal of Public Health showed that anti-texting laws were effective in reducing deaths among young drivers but did not reduce death rates for drivers over the age of 21.
Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, co-sponsored last year's texting-while-driving bill and is chairman of the Iowa Senate Transportation Committee. Bowman said he hopes lawmakers use data - not emotion or anecdotes - when debating distracted driving legislation.
Bowman cited a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study that said the average driver sending a text message took his or her eyes off the road for an average of 4.8 seconds. During that time, a vehicle traveling 55 mph covers more than 100 yards.
Imagine driving for five seconds with your eyes covered, Bowman said.
'Everybody has these gut feelings. I like to base our decisions based on data-driven research,” Bowman said. 'Our goal would be to try to find some common ground, some language that everyone could support and see if there's some will to improve safety in regards to distracted driving.
'We'll have the subcommittee meeting (this coming Thursday), listen to folks and kind of decide which direction we want to go with this. The goal is to find something that protects Iowans and minimizes distracted driving, making roads safer,” he said.