DES MOINES — Iowa Police Sgt. Scott Bright looked into the next lane and saw a sight familiar to most people who spend time on Iowa’s roads.
“She was looking down on her lap texting,” says Bright, communications officer for the Iowa Department of Public Safety. “I stayed with her for a while, but there was really nothing I could do. She wasn’t doing anything else wrong.”
Texting while driving is illegal in Iowa. It has been since July 2010.
In that respect, Iowa is like the majority of other states. But unlike most other states, Iowa law says texting is a secondary offense, meaning an officer, like Bright, can’t pull most motorists over for texting unless they spot them doing something else wrong.
That’s part of the reason law enforcement authorities across the state have written roughly only 500 tickets for texting while driving in the past two years, according to information compiled by the Department of Public Safety.
“It’s very difficult to enforce (the law),” Bright said.
BILLS AND BUMPER STICKERS
“Honk if you love Jesus and text if you want to meet him.”
Those are the words on a bumper sticker state Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, said he saw on a car in a Des Moines parking lot on his way to the Capitol last week.
Bowman, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, pushed legislation which would have made texting a primary offense — meaning police could pull a motorist over if they suspected the driver was texting — this year.
It passed the Senate, but never got called up in the House.
“The reason for the push is people are out on the road and they see the dangerous distracted driving, and distracted driving is more than just texting, but this was a first step in the right direction,” Bowman said.
Iowa is one of five states where texting while driving is a secondary offense. The others are Florida, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota, according to statistics kept by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. It’s a primary offense in 38 states and Washington D.C.
Association spokesperson Kara Macek said texting laws have the same genesis seat belt laws did a couple of decades ago.
“States go for secondary laws first, then it begins transitioning into a primary law,” she said.
While several studies have shown seat belts and tough seat belt laws reduce fatal accidents, there isn’t similar data that texting ban advocates can point to, Macek said.
The bans, she said, “are so new and they’re just coming out; there’s no hard data about a reduction of crashes. There is some evidence that it changes behavior when there is a ban.”
PRIVACY AND DRAWING THE LINE
Bowman travels to Des Moines from his Maquoketa home and back at least once a week during the legislative session and says he often shares the road with people busy messaging behind the wheel.
“I see it all the time,” Bowman said. “Everyone has their own story about texting while driving. I hear stories at all of my forums. Nothing surprises me anymore.”
He said there’s still a chance to move the issue this session, which is expected to wrap up in the next couple of weeks. He thinks the ban language could be attached as an amendment to an existing bill; absent that, he said the state could set aside money for an education campaign through the Iowa Department of Transportation.
“This isn’t just a teeny-bopper issue any more; adults are doing this too,” Bowman said. “I’m not done. This isn’t over for this session.”
House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, isn’t as certain.
“We definitely did discuss it in caucus and there just wasn’t agreement,” she said. “There's just kind of enough (disagreement) to give us pause to make sure that we came up with a bill that was actually a good, positive, move forward.”
She said House Republicans want something that covers distracted driving in general.“Distracted driving is a problem, I don’t care if that means they’re juggling their breakfast sandwich, a Big Mac, or they’re putting on makeup on their way to work or whatever it is,” she said. “That’s the point. Where is the line? I think that’s where we’re at.”