Driver’s seat texters beware — cops are looking for you.
A new law took hold this month to make texting while driving a primary offense in Iowa. Previously, texters could be cited only if they were pulled over for something else. Now, texting alone is grounds for a traffic stop.
Using a mobile device while operating a motor vehicle is an unequivocally bad idea. However, that doesn’t mean a ban is a good idea.
Americans seem to be very good at identifying things that make us feel afraid, but not so good at identifying the best solutions. Many of our laws are based on the assumption that if something is undesirable, we should use armed government agents to intervene.
Traffic stops already are the most common reason for police contact in the United States, accounting for 42 percent of all police interactions, according to a 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.
While traffic stops might be routine, that doesn’t mean they’re not risky. Officers might understandably be jumpy approaching vehicles when they can’t see the subject or their hands. Drivers, meanwhile, are subjected to a wide range of risks — illegal searches, unnecessary detention, asset forfeiture, and even police brutality.
We also know traffic stops don’t affect everyone equally. Dozens of studies have shown men and people of color are more likely to be pulled over, searched, and charged.
The Legislature’s decision to make a new primary driving offense will lead to more traffic stops. More traffic stops inevitably put officers and the public at greater risk.
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The bill gathered just a handful of “no” votes in Des Moines this session. One of those detractors — Rep. Larry Sheets, R-Moulton — told me he’s worried the law could infringe on Iowans’ privacy.
“I pretty much try to maximize freedom as much as possible. That’s part of it,” Sheets said. “The other part is, I don’t see how an officer could distinguish between someone who is texting and someone looking at his GPS.
The only way to enforce it would be to invade his privacy and look at the messages on his phone, which violates the Fourth Amendment, which nobody seems to care about anymore.”
For now at least, police say they won’t be regularly scanning cellphones for evidence against motorists accused of texting.
“There are a lot of scenarios where that might be possible, but under normal circumstances, I don’t think we’re interested in seeing people’s cellphones for texting and driving,” said Sgt. Scott Gaarde of the Iowa City Police Department. “Obviously the goal is voluntary compliance. Rather than issue a citation, we’d much rather have people driving safely and preventing collisions.”
Still, it’s easy to see how a creeping legal code and emerging technology soon could enable police to skim private data during traffic stops. The government already is able to scrape some of our data from the air or from locked devices in their possession.
Texting while driving is undoubtedly stupid and dangerous, but so too is our country’s acceptance of routine traffic stops. Not every problem can be solved with sirens and badges.
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