Past time to stop texting while driving

Governor Chet Culver today signed into law the ban on texting while driving. This chart at the Iowa Senate Democrats blog shows the relevant prohibitions and exceptions. The House Democrats blog summarizes key points:

House File 2456 prohibits the use of all electronic and mobile devices while driving for those under the age of 18.  Persons over 18 may not use a hand-held electronic device to read, write, or send a text message while driving. Violators will be charged with a simple misdemeanor and a $30 fine.  If texting is the cause of an accident that results in serious injury or death, penalties increase up to a $1000 fine and 180 day license suspension.

Law enforcement cannot stop or detain a person only for suspected violations of texting and local governments are not allowed to adopt their own ordinances.  When the new law takes effect on July 1, law enforcement will begin an education campaign and will only write warning citations for the first year before the enhanced penalties and fines begin to apply.

Click here for the full text and bill history of House File 2456. It’s a reasonable compromise between a broad texting ban approved by the Iowa Senate in February and an Iowa House version that would have applied only to teenage drivers. State Representative Curt Hanson, a retired driver’s education teacher, headed the committee that drafted the compromise language. Texting is dangerous for older drivers as well as for teens.

The new law specifies that police cannot pull someone over solely for a suspected texting violation because while this bill was under consideration, some activists alleged that the texting ban would give officers another excuse for racially-motivated traffic stops and arrests. A group paid for robocalls in some House Democrats’ districts, seeking to generate calls against the new law. Excerpt from one such call, which you can listen to here: “This has nothing to do with safety–they just want another reason to pull you over and to harrass you.”

While the texting ban is a step in the right direction, drivers ought to go further and stop using their cell phones while the vehicle is moving. Driving while talking on the phone has been shown to be as dangerous as drunk driving. Cell phones are estimated to cause 1.4 million crashes a year in the U.S., and hands-free phones are no safer for drivers than hand-held phones. For more background, read the New York Times series of reports last summer on the dangers of cell phone use while driving. I know someone who is normally a good driver but rear-ended another vehicle recently while glancing down to see who was calling her cell phone.

Politically, restricting cell phone use while driving won’t be possible in Iowa until some high-profile accident claims lives here. Too often it takes a tragedy (with sympathetic victims) to spur lawmakers to act.  

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Traffic deaths in Iowa hit lowest level since World War II

State officials say Iowa’s road death toll in 2009 is the lowest since 1945, the Des Moines Register reported on January 2. There were 371 recorded traffic fatalities last year, although the number could rise slightly if additional deaths are reported from the end of December. Register reporter Mike Kilen noted several factors that helped reduce the number of fatal accidents: Iowans cut back on miles driven because of the recession, cars and roads are safer, and more people are wearing seat belts. Smart policing was also at work:

“The emphasis has really been placed on the drunken driver, with 20 to 25 percent of fatalities involving drinking,” [Iowa State Patrol Chief Col. Patrick] Hoye said.

The state patrol initiated Safe Saturdays this summer, putting more troopers on the roads on Saturday nights during June, typically the deadliest month.

“The (drunken driving) arrests went way up and there was a dip in the deaths,” he said.

We’ll never know who is walking around alive today because state troopers wisely focused on the most dangerous drivers at the most dangerous times. All who devised and carried out those policies deserve credit.

In November Iowa Republicans announced a “Liberty Agenda” that included this proposal:

Restore the number of State Troopers to the pre-1998 level within the next five years.

Since 1998, the last year in which Republicans controlled state government, the number of State Troopers has dropped from 355 to 288.

During the upcoming legislative session, I will be curious to hear how Republicans make the case for hiring as many state troopers as we had in 1998. I don’t pretend to know what the ideal number of state troopers is for Iowa, but it seems like they decided the 1998 level was needed because Republicans controlled state government at that time. Aren’t Republicans supposed to be for using state resources efficiently and not expanding the size of government for its own sake?

Kilen asked Scott Falb, the driver safety specialist for the Iowa Department of Transportation, about ways to reduce road deaths further. Falb suggested several changes but did not mention increasing the number of state troopers:

Improvements to roadways, such as rumble strips on center lines and shoulders and engineering tweaks, would help lower fatalities even more in the future, Falb said.

Proposed laws to restrict cell phone use and texting while driving, added restrictions on younger drivers and seat belt requirements for anyone in a vehicle under the age of 18 would also help lower the number of deaths, he said.

If the legislature decides to restrict cell phone use while driving, lawmakers should note that hands-free cell phones are no safer for drivers than ordinary cell phones. This New York Times piece on distracted driving explains why.  

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