DES MOINES – Ongoing problems, accidents and deaths associated with inattentive driving on Iowa’s roadways are getting the attention of law enforcement officers.
Iowa Department of Public Safety officials say distracted driving is a growing concern and they plan to push next legislative session for ways to strengthen enforcement of state laws designed to keep motor-vehicle operators focused on their responsibilities while occupying the driver’s seat.
“We’re starting to see a lot more collisions where people are distracted, and texting is becoming a major factor when people are behind the wheel,” said Sgt. Scott Bright, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
“If somebody is going down the road way and they’re texting they are a hazard to other people,” he added. “It’s a danger. It’s a danger for everybody.”
To that end, DPS officials plan to ask lawmakers to add a distractive driving subsection to an existing statute dealing with failure to maintain control of a vehicle, which is a moving violation with a scheduled fine of $100 — $195 when court costs and surcharges are added, Bright said.
Currently, Iowa law bans texting for all drivers and bars teenagers operating vehicles under restricted or intermediate licenses, as well as instructional or school permits, from using cellphones or electronic devices while driving. The violation is a simple misdemeanor punishable by a $30 scheduled fine, although there are enhanced fines and licensure sanctions for texting violations involving an accident that caused property damage, serious injury or death ranging up to $1,000 and a 180-day license suspension.
The current Iowa law — which bars a person from using a hand-held electronic communication device to write, send or read a text message while driving a motor vehicle — is only enforceable as a secondary action when a peace officer stops or detains a driver for a suspected violation of another motor vehicle law.
Bright said the legislative proposal to expand the failure to maintain control statute would make distracted driving a primary offense meaning that an officer could ticket the driver for the offense without any other traffic violation taking place. It also would give an officer more discretion in determining when an activity appeared to be causing a vehicle to swerve in traffic lanes or creating some other distraction impeding safe vehicle operations, he said.
“It’s hard for the investigating officer to actually define and prove that the driver was distracted at the time of the crash,” said Patrick Hoye, chief of the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.
“Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of crashes even though it’s under reported,” added Hoye, former Iowa State Patrol chief. “Law enforcement is looking at ways to more stringently enforced. Here in Iowa, making it a primary would certainly make that easier for law enforcement to address.”
Gov. Terry Branstad said he and his staff currently are review what to include in his administration’s 2014 legislative proposals but no decision has been made. He said he has discussed driving distractions with DPS Commissioner Larry Noble and the problem goes beyond cell-phone use.
Iowa is one of 42 states that bar text messaging for all drivers. A dozen U.S. states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving, but Branstad said it “would be pretty drastic” to seek a cell-phone ban in Iowa and he did not expect that to be a major focus of the 2014 discussion.
Both transportation committee chairs — Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, in the House and Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, in the Senate – say distracted driving is on their 2014 radar but it’s unclear whether a consensus will develop next session on how to address the problem legislatively.
“I definitely think that as technology increases it’s going to be more of an issue,” said Byrnes. “But I’m also a firm believer that as the technology increases, technology can solve the problem.”
Byrnes noted that he downloaded an application on his 16-year-old daughter’s cell phone that prevents use of the device while she’s driving. He also noted that more vehicles are offering features that allow for hands-free communications.
Bowman said he is researching what other states are doing to allow law officers more discretion in pulling over vehicles that may be operating erratically, but he noted that he wanted to avoid creating unintended consequences in trying to address driving distractions.
Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, who brought a bill last session seeking to prohibit drivers from engaging in a distracting activity while operating a motor vehicle, said he does not plan to push his measure in 2014 but still sees the need to address the problem proactively.
“We still have problems with distracted driving and they’re not going to go away. In this highly techie society that we’re in, there are lots of distractions in the car while driving. I see it every day while I’m driving,” Johnson said.
Bright said he has seen drivers eating a bowl of cereal, texting, shaving, putting on makeup, working on laptop computers, reading, programming their global positioning systems and engaging in other distracting activities while patrolling highways around Iowa.
Nationally, 3,331 people were killed and 387,000 people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s distraction.gov web site. The death toll slipped slightly last year to 3,328 in crashes where distractions were a contributing factor.
In Iowa, Michael Pawlovich of the state Department of Transportation noted that 81 deaths were reported in 19,256 crashes that were associated with inattentive or distracted driving from 2003 to 2013 – including six deaths in the current year. Nearly four out of 10 accidents and 27 deaths in the DOT crash data involved the use of a phone or other device.
“States that are getting a handle on distracted driving are seeing their fatalities come down,” Hoye said. “I think there is a direct correlation to states that are addressing distracted driving and reduction of fatalities. There is a strong correlation there.”