Texting and driving

Police say enforcement of Iowa's new law on cellphone use while driving may have helped reduce traffic fatalities this year.

While they agree that a new law in Iowa that makes texting and driving a primary offense is a step in the right direction, law enforcement representatives in the Iowa Quad-Cities say it can be difficult to catch violators.

“It is difficult when you could only charge someone with texting, but they can actually still make phone calls and use their phone for navigation,” Scott County Sheriff Tim Lane said.

Under the new law, which went into effect July 1, drivers 18 and older cannot use their phones to text, surf the internet, check email and social media or play games.

They still can use the phone to make phone calls and for navigation. 

The law also makes texting a primary offense, meaning police can pull over motorists solely for texting while driving or using the phone in any other illegal way.

A previous law, which went into effect on July 1, 2010, made texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement had to have another reason, such as speeding, to pull someone over.

Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the Davenport Police Department has written any citations or written warnings since the new law took effect on July 1.

“Part of the citation numbers stems from the fact that it is still legal to make phone calls and use GPS functions on a phone,” Davenport Police Lt. Shawn Voigts said in an email. “In order to cite a driver, the officer has to prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that they were texting, on an app or on social media. As you can imagine, this is difficult to do when you are in another car.”

The Bettendorf Police Department has issued one citation and five written warnings, Capt. Keith Kimball said.

The Iowa State Patrol in July issued 105 citations and 59 warnings statewide. Prior to that, troopers issued 204 citations and 243 warnings between January and July when texting and driving still was a secondary offense.

“Through enforcement and education, hopefully, we can create that social change, and it (distracted driving) becomes much less of an issue as far as traffic safety,” said Dan Loussaert, a safety education officer with the Iowa State Patrol.

The Iowa Department of Transportation reported 11 fatal and 30 major crashes because of distracted driving by use of phone or other device in 2016.

According to the Iowa Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau, drivers who use hand-held devices while driving are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves or others.

Younger, more inexperienced drivers under the age of 20 have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes, and they text more than any other age group, according the Traffic Safety Bureau.

Loussaert said that with younger drivers, there has been a texting-and-driving ban much of their lives.

“I think the kids realize it as much or maybe a little bit more than some adults,” he said. “Since the law has changed, I’ve had several adults ask if they can talk on the phone and drive. The adults sometimes don’t pay as much attention to what the law changes are, but the kids probably know more about what is illegal and what is legal, because for them, the law has been on the books for as long as they can remember.”

In an effort to step up enforcement on the road, the State Patrol has conducted some special projects, such as utilizing plainclothes officers and using RVs and other unmarked vehicles on the road to spot people texting and driving.

Unmarked cars also are out in different high-volume areas to watch for motorists illegally using their phones, Loussaert said.

He said he thinks law enforcement is making some improvements “slowly but surely.”

“I don’t think I see it as much in the patrol car,” he said. “Again, it’s often harder to see unless they have that tunnel vision and they’re so distracted that they don’t see the patrol car. A lot of times, if they are doing something wrong, seeing the patrol vehicle makes them stop the activity."