Iowa House Republican charged with DWI

State Representative and Iowa House Education Committee Chair Greg Forristall (district 98) created an unfortunate teachable moment yesterday. A Pottawattamie County deputy stopped Forristall’s vehicle after seeing him drive uphill on the wrong side of Iowa Highway 92, nearly causing a head-on collision:

Forristall told the officer he had consumed some gin earlier in the day. Nearly two hours after being stopped, his blood alcohol content was .276, more than three times the legal limit, according to sheriff officials.

The deputy seized a bottle of gin that was nearly ¾ full from Forristall’s vehicle. He was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated, cited for driving on the wrong side of the road and released later on a $1,000 bond.

Forristall issued a statement apologizing to “my family, friends and constituents,” adding that “I fully accept the consequences of my actions.”

I doubt this incident will end his political career. Last year, Republican State Representative Erik Helland (district 69) didn’t draw any general-election opponent despite a drunk driving arrest in the summer. There weren’t many write-in votes against Helland, and he was named House majority whip after the November election.

House district 98, covering Mills County and part of Pottawattamie, is so heavily Republican that Forristall hasn’t had a Democratic opponent the last two general elections. Redistricting put him in the new House district 22, covering most of Pottawattamie outside Council Bluffs. The district has a huge Republican voter registration advantage.

Iowa politicians from both parties have been arrested for drunk driving in recent years. It should not be so difficult for lawmakers to ask someone else for a ride when they feel like drinking, especially if they have had enough to reach a blood alcohol level of 0.276. That level can cause “severe motor impairment” and/or loss of consciousness. It’s lucky that no one was injured before the officer stopped Forristall.

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Iowa House Republican charged with OWI

State Representative Erik Helland was arrested early this morning and charged with operating while intoxicated and interference with official acts, KCCI-TV reported. After a driver in a different vehicle called 911 to report Helland’s erratic driving,

A trooper and Johnston police stopped the vehicle at Merle Hay Road at 12:47 a.m.

Officials said Helland submitted to a preliminary breath screening test, which indicated an alcohol concentration of .08 or more. At 2:21 a.m., he exercised his right to refuse chemical testing.

First-term Republican Helland represents Iowa House district 69, covering most of Johnston, Grimes, and much of rural northern Polk County. From the sound of this statement Helland released, he won’t be fighting the charge:

“I deeply regret the mistake I made to drink and drive. I apologize to my family, constituents, colleagues and all Iowans for the harmful and dangerous error that I made. I fully accept the consequences of my actions and am truly sorry. “

No Democrat filed to challenge Helland, so he is likely to ride out this scandal even if convicted of drunk driving. Democratic State Representative Kerry Burt was arrested on an OWI in early 2009. His political career might have survived if not for a separate incident that led to criminal charges, prompting Burt to retire from Iowa House district 21.

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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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Burt gets fine, probation for drunk driving

State Representative Kerry Burt received a year of probation and a $625 fine after pleading guilty to drunk driving, the Des Moines Register reported on August 21. He will also be required to take a class for drunk drivers. Burt released a statement apologizing for his actions and promising never to let it happen again. I’ve posted that statement after the jump. It doesn’t sound like he’s planning to resign.

I would like Democrats to find a new candidate for House district 21 next year. The Register pointed out that State Senator Robert Dvorsky was re-elected in 2006 despite a drunk driving arrest earlier that year, but Dvorsky had spent nearly two decades in the Iowa legislature at that time and represents a safe Democratic district. Burt is in his first term and defeated a Republican incumbent by a narrow margin in 2008. He is also among several people being investigated for giving false addresses in order to evade tuition payments at the University of Northern Iowa’s Malcolm Price Laboratory School.

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