116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Iowa’s top public safety official wants to make another run in the upcoming legislative session at banning motor-vehicle operators from using hand-held devices while driving.
While some lawmakers have resisted a prohibition against using cellphones or other hand-held devices while driving on the grounds that it’s a personal freedom issue, Stephan Bayens, commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said public safety benefits trump the individual rights concern. The volume of injuries and deaths associated with distracted driving is a major problem, he said, and the current law that makes texting while driving a primary offense is too hard to enforce.
“We’re still going to push it because it’s important. We’re seeing too many folks dying on our roadways because of it and in particular younger kids,” said Bayens in an interview with The Gazette.
“I struggle with the personal freedom aspect of it,” said Bayens. “I’m as much of a freedom-loving individual as the next, but nine times out of 10 if you’re driving distracted, you’re not just endangering yourself, you’re endangering your passengers, your kids, you’re endangering the other motorists on the roadway. And, yes, if it was truly an isolated situation where your actions caused consequences to you and you alone I could better understand the personal freedom aspect of it. But the reality is it’s not unique to the individual. Those consequences when you choose to engage in distracted driving has rippling effects across the traveling public and we just can’t allow that to happen.”
Iowa law officers and safety officials recently noted they will not meet their goal of holding traffic deaths on the state’s roadways below 300 this year. The year-to-date toll already was 318 as of Tuesday.
But they are continuing their safety campaign aimed at persuading drivers to slow down, buckle up and operate alcohol- and distraction-free, which includes keeping drivers’ eyes and hands off electronic devices. Iowa Department of Transportation statistics show distracted driving continues to be a problem, with 945 crashes and four deaths tied to drivers operating vehicles while distracted last year, Still, that’s an improvement, down from 1,233 crashes in 2016 and 14 deaths in 2015 tied to distracted drivers.
“It’s incredibly difficult to enforce what we have on the books right now,” Bayens said of Iowa’s texting while driving ban. Iowa State Patrol troopers even rode with semi-trailer truck drivers as a creative way to “look down with a bird’s-eye view” on distracted drivers, but still had problems proving violators were engaged in the specific prohibited uses of their devices.
“If we could just get it out of their hands,” the commissioner said, noting that 25 states that ban or restrict all hand-held cellphone use behind the wheel have had positive outcomes once the habit has been ingrained. “It’s just a matter of getting over the hump,” he said. “Like seat belt use, soon it will become second habit.”
Sen. Waylon Brown, R-Osage, chair of the Iowa Senate Transportation Committee, previously indicated he was working with proponents to get legislation passed in 2022. But Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said his majority GOP caucus members had concerns over the enforcement and personal freedom aspects of banning drivers from using hand-held devices.
During a Senate discussion last session on a bill that would have barred drivers from using hand-held electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle — but would have allowed using voice-activated or hands-free equipment while driving — Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, told his colleagues that “the civil libertarian part of me doesn't like this bill. The grandfather in me likes this bill. I think we have to do it for the safety of Iowans."
Law officers have struggled to get drivers to slow down since a spate of excessive speeding developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Bayens said state officials have not considered the option some cities and counties — including Cedar Rapids --- use to curb speeding: automated traffic enforcement cameras.
“Looking across the nation, I don’t think there are any state police organizations that are using automated traffic enforcement cameras for general enforcement,” he said, but noted four states do use cameras in work zones as an enforcement tool.
“There’s a lot of disagreement about whether cameras really change driver behavior or are they more of a revenue generator,” said Bayens. He noted that Iowa lawmakers increased some penalties for speeding, but he pointed to changing driver behavior through education and other avenues likely is more effective.
“We can’t just cite our way out of the problem. We’re just not going to arrest folks out of the problem. We need an enforcement prong, we need an education prong to bring a lot of awareness to it,” he said.
Another technology issue of interest to law enforcement is whether to equip Department of Public Safety officers with body cameras. Bayens noted that most state-level sworn officers want cameras as a protection against someone making false allegations.
But state troopers already conduct about 90 percent of their work in and around their squad cars, he said, and most of the vehicles are equipped with two, sometimes three, cameras that show views from the front, back and inside the cruisers and officers carry microphones. So a switch to body cameras would be an incremental change, he said.
“The vast majority of our work already gets recorded, but we do want to move to body cameras as well,” said Bayens, who indicated his agency initially had favorable discussions with legislators about a $3.55 million request over two fiscal years to equip all state troopers with body cameras.
While generally favorable to body cameras, the commissioner said the “flip side” is privacy concerns over how much data is collected — including conversations officers might have in their squad cars in one of the few professions where they would be “recorded from the minute you start your job to the minute that you go home.”
“It’s a double-edged sword. I think our folks view it as protecting them but it also is an intrusion,” he said. “But it’s a direction that we’re going to go. We’re looking for funding to get there. We’ve made some preliminary steps in that direction and I would suspect that within the next 18 to 24 months, assuming that the finances are good, we’ll be in a position to migrate toward body cameras statewide.”
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