The number of texting-while-driving citations has increased more than 600 percent statewide in the year since Iowa updated its texting ban.
Numbers also have spiked locally.
Iowa State Patrol troopers wrote 1,131 tickets for texting while driving in the past year, between July 1, 2017, when the updated ban went into effect, and June 30 this year.
They wrote 182 texting tickets in the same period the year before.
State Patrol Sgt. Nathan Ludwig said troopers now have more leeway when it comes to enforcing texting-while-driving violations.
The updated ban allows drivers over the age of 18 to use their cellphones to make calls or to use a phone’s GPS for directions — but nothing else. Texting and exchanging of electronic messages of any kind are forbidden.
The new law also re-categorized violations as a primary offense, meaning officers can now initiate traffic stops solely for a texting-and-driving situation.
The state’s original texting ban, which went into effect eight years ago, classified texting while driving as a secondary offense, meaning officers had to observe some other traffic violation or offense to initiate a traffic stop.
That switch, Ludwig said, cleared the path for more focused enforcement of cellphone violations.
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“We’ve been trying to use our unmarked vehicles, as well as pickup trucks or SUVs, more because they can see into the vehicles next to them,” he said. “We’ll have them drive down the road and radio to other officers when they see someone texting and driving.”
Ludwig said officers are not just looking for a cellphone in hand. They’re looking for several indications the driver is actively engaging in some sort of electronic messaging.
“We’re going to look for someone’s head moving up and down, we’re going to watch to see if their vehicle is weaving in and out of the lane,” he said.
“We’re going to see if they’re driving with their head down, and we’re going to look to see if a phone comes up into view and the driver is scrolling with their thumb. It’s about establishing our case first.
“We’re not going to pull someone over the minute we see a phone in their hand. We’re going to wait to gather as much evidence as we can.”
Ludwig said texting while driving tickets come with a fine of about $100.
The spike in texting tickets is also showing up locally.
In Cedar Rapids, the number of citations more than doubled.
City police officers wrote seven texting tickets the year before the ban. In the past year, the number rose to 18.
“Any distracted driving, including texting and driving, is a serious concern because it only takes a few seconds for the driving situation to change, such as a car braking suddenly or going out of your lane of traffic, in which a collision with serious injury or death could occur,” Cedar Rapids public safety spokesperson Greg Buelow said.
And though the updated ban is a “an excellent step toward improving traffic laws related to texting and driving,” there still is room for improvement, he said.
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“There still is the issue that the law allows a person to make phone calls and use the GPS feature on the phone,” he said. “We would like to see a totally hands-free law, (as there are) still too many drivers distracted by using their phones by simply talking or looking at GPS maps.”
IOWA CITY/JOHNSON COUNTY
In Iowa City and Johnson County, texting-while-driving tickets have about tripled.
Iowa City officers issued 33 texting-while-driving citations over the past year — up from 12 the year before,
Johnson County deputies issued 28, compared to nine the previous year.
Sgt. Derek Frank, Iowa City police spokesman person, said 29 of those 33 tickets were issued through traffic stops and four came after crashes.
“Distracted driving is a big problem,” he said. “And though we don’t have a dedicated traffic division, we have patrol officers in the department who are really focused on traffic violations because it’s something that is important to them.”
Linn County, however, saw no change in the number of citations.
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office issued eight texting tickets each year.
Maj. Chad Colston of the sheriff’s office patrol dvision, said that is likely due to where deputies are patrolling.
“I think it mostly has to do with the roads we are patrolling,” he said. “We don’t patrol a lot of four-lane roads where we can pull up beside a vehicle and see what the driver is doing. Most of the roads we travel are two-lane roads, and that makes it difficult for us to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is texting while driving.”
Colston said department resources also could be a factor.
“We’re pretty busy going from call to call,” he said. “That doesn’t leave a lot of time — especially during peak traffic hours — to do focused enforcement.”
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