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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