By Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES — Motorists would not be able to use hand-held electronic devices under legislation aimed at reducing distractions while driving that cleared an initial hurdle in the Iowa Senate on Monday.
A Senate subcommittee voted 3-0 to approve Senate Study Bill 3045, a measure that would extend Iowa’s texting ban to prohibit drivers from using a smartphones or other electronic device they would hold in their hand while operating a motor vehicle. Violating the provision would be a moving offense carrying a $30 fine.
“It’s common sense, and if people would just exercise common sense, we wouldn’t have to do this,” said Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake.
“But they’re not. People are getting hurt, people are dying. Do I think it’s a huge priority, and I hope we can get it to the governor’s desk and I hope the governor will sign it.”
Drivers would be able to use electronic communication devices in hands-free mode that were physically or electronically integrated into their vehicles or could be operated with minimal contact.
The prohibition would not apply to public safety agencies performing official duties, health care professionals dealing with emergencies, or in cases where a motorist was reporting an emergency.
A driver could use a hand-held device in a stopped vehicle not parked on the travel portion of a street or highway.
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“We appreciate the step that was taken a few years ago, but it really is hard to enforce,” said Susan Cameron Daemon, a lobbyist with the Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association, “and this would make our laws more enforceable and, we believe, make our roadways safer.”
Similar legislation that sought to raise the fine to $100 stalled in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, so backers removed the fee increase and opted for starting a new version in hopes of getting the issue moving in the legislative process. A hands-free cellphone bill also has been introduced in the House.
“I know it’s got a lot of strong support across the state, and it just seems to make good common sense,” said Sen. Eric Giddens, D-Cedar Falls, one of three subcommittee members who forwarded the bill to the full Senate Transportation Committee for consideration.
Nineteen states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories have barred hand-held devices while driving — a distracting activity that Whiting said leads to 1.6 million crashes annually.
“I’m a liberty guy, but at the same time in government we’re in the business of drawing lines and how do we keep people as safe as possible while maximizing their liberty,” Whiting said.
“We have seen a lot of instances where speeding, distracted driving, not wearing your seat belt leads to all manner of unnecessary injury and death,” he added. “I think as a society we need to just slow down and stop being so distracted so easily by things whether we’re driving in our cars or just walking down the street.”
A representative for the state Department of Public Safety suggested legislators consider including a “grace period” of six months or a year where drivers would be issued a warning rather than fined for a violation during the transition to the new law. Whiting said the bill would need to be amended to cover novice and intermediate drivers who inadvertently were omitted when the bill was drafted.
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