Staff Columnist

Tickets up, but heads still down

A woman breaks down while reading a victim impact statement at a sentencing hearing for a Linn County man found guilty of his role in the deaths of two juveniles while he was texting and driving in 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A woman breaks down while reading a victim impact statement at a sentencing hearing for a Linn County man found guilty of his role in the deaths of two juveniles while he was texting and driving in 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Preliminary results of Iowa’s first full year of making texting while driving a primary offense are in, and they aren’t good.

Since the law, intended to further crack down on distracted drivers, went into effect in July 2017, the Iowa State Patrol alone has ticketed an average of three drivers each day. There is no official tally on activity by local law enforcement agencies, but it is reasonable to believe stops and ticketing have increased in all jurisdictions. Before last year, Troopers and other members of Iowa law enforcement couldn’t stop motorists for texting and driving alone.

Those caught poking their phones or other hand-held electronic devices were handed citations of about $100.

But as billboards and other public service announcements remind us, those who weren’t caught sometimes paid a much higher price: Vehicle crashes, injuries, and deaths.

Nationally, motorists use their phones on about 88 percent of all trips, and about half of young drivers report typing on a device while driving in the past 30 days. And yet the country has spent the past decade or more using every ploy imaginable to get the message out about the unique distraction poised by electronic devices — gadgets that get more sophisticated each year.

As research psychologist Steve Casner wrote in Time magazine late last year, this is because people don’t believe the warnings, choosing instead to rely on past experiences.

It works like this: The first time you glance at a message on your phone while you are driving, your heart rate spikes. You’ve seen the billboards and commercials, after all. But you chance a glance and rush your eyes back to the road without an incident. The next time a message arrives, you glance again, feeling a little less apprehensive about the consequences. And with each passing interaction, you get a little more comfortable and secure in your ability to multitask.

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Others create rules, such as only looking at or using the phone while at a stop light, or using hands-free interactions, often built into the car. As a result, most of us aren’t even aware of how often we are interacting with electronics while we drive, and, regardless, past experience has conditioned our brain to believe we can handle it. That’s a very dangerous — and completely false — trap.

Research shows that even motorists who only use electronics, including hands-free assistance, while traveling slowly or stopped in traffic need half a minute to fully refocus on the road.

Casner suggests the answer isn’t more awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, but better understanding of how our minds process perceived threats and danger. Maybe. There’s value in understanding accidents are the rule, and no individual is an exception.

As more communities move to comprehensive road plans that incorporate more pedestrian and bicycle traffic onto roadways, answers need to come sooner rather than later.

We must find a way to amplify the message about the very real dangers of all forms of distracted driving, and acknowledge that issuing more $100 tickets for handling of smartphones won’t wake the distracted masses.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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