Public Safety

Highways off to deadly start this year

Despite texting ban, first half of 2018 shows grim tally

Iowa Department of Transportation signs in January 2017 over Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids give the final tally of 2016 traffic fatalities. This year as of June 26, Iowa has tallied 139 highway fatalities — marking the second-most traffic deaths for midway through the year since 2013. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa Department of Transportation signs in January 2017 over Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids give the final tally of 2016 traffic fatalities. This year as of June 26, Iowa has tallied 139 highway fatalities — marking the second-most traffic deaths for midway through the year since 2013. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

It has been a year since Iowa’s ban on texting while driving went into effect, allowing officers to stop drivers for texting behind the wheel without spotting some other violation as well.

Max Freund / The Gazette

Enforcing the new law — which bans the use of phones for texting and checking social media, but not for making calls and navigating by GPS — has been challenging for law enforcement. But the Iowa State Patrol still managed to issue 1,219 citations since the law began July 1, 2017.

“There are still some difficulties in enforcing it, but we have seen quite a bit of increase in the number of citations issued,” said Patrick Hoye, a former state patrol chief who leads the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

Drivers distracted by the use of a phone or other device caused 1,207 crashes last year, resulting in 10 fatalities, Iowa Department of Transportation data shows.

In 2016, distracted driving caused 1,231 crashes — the most since 2001 — and 13 fatalities. In 2015, there were 1,100 crashes and 14 fatalities — the most in 17 years — caused by the use of a phone or other device, the Iowa DOT said.

State data for this year — up to early June — show 425 crashes and three fatalities caused by distracted driving as a result of the use of a phone or device.

HOLIDAY WEEK CRACKDOWN

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Hoye said drivers can expect to see increased police presence on Iowa’s highways surrounding this holiday week — one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.

More driving leads to a greater chance of collisions, he said.

“The thing with July Fourth is it is always one of the deadliest in our state. In the last five years we’ve averaged about five fatalities a year in that period,” Hoye said, adding that drunken driving often is a major factor.

In response, the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are again providing local agencies funding to ramp up police presence surrounding the holiday to curb drunken driving.

“We’re going to try to step up our patrols a little bit, remind people to wear seat belts and keep their speeds under control,” said Maj. Chad Colston, with the Linn County Sheriff’s Office.

FAST DRIVING UP, BUT SEAT BELT USE DOWN

As of June 26, Iowa had tallied 139 highway fatalities — marking the second-most traffic deaths for midway through the year since 2013.

Hoye said a number of factors play into highway fatalities, including seat belt use, distracted driving, drunken driving and excessive speeds.

Last year, the Iowa State Patrol issued 797 citations for drivers traveling in excess of 100 mph — compared with 342 citations in 2013.

“In a five-year span, it’s more than doubled,” Hoye said.

Yet statewide seat belt compliance dropped from 93 to 91 percent last year. The national average is 89 percent.

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“From being one of the top states in the country, now we’re unfortunately creeping back toward the middle of the pack,” he said.

To address mounting concerns of distracted driving-related collisions, the Iowa Legislature last year passed updates to the state’s texting ban, which took effect July 1, 2017.

Under the law, using a phone to text, play games or use social media is banned. Violating the state law comes with a roughly $100 fine.

Those above the age of 18 — those under 18 cannot use their phones at all while behind the wheel — can use their phones for phone calls and GPS, however, which makes enforcing the law tough.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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