DES MOINES — State public safety commissioner Roxanne Ryan is leading a study group to look at ways to combat distracted, drunken and drowsy driving that could include cellphone restrictions and public awareness to improve safety for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday.
The governor said the rising death toll on Iowa highways, a record number of bicyclists who have died in traffic crashes and the increasing amount of distractions — including the Pokémon Go craze for pedestrians and motorists — has heightened concerns about safety issues.
So much so, Branstad told his weekly news conference, that he has asked Ryan to chair a task force to study the problem and make recommendations to him in advance of next year’s legislative session. Branstad said highway safety is a major issue and he expects to come with a legislative proposal in 2017 that could include a cellphone ban or broader restrictions and other preventive steps.
“That’s one of the things we’re looking at as far as distracted drivers, and we’ll be looking at the whole thing about use of different devices and other things that might distract drivers,” the governor said. “We do need to be concerned about protecting public safety, but we also want to do it in a fair and balanced way.”
Branstad said he has witnessed with concern some pedestrians intently looking at their electronic devices playing the Pokémon Go game while crossing streets in downtown Des Moines which creates “a whole new phenomenon” in the public safety arena.
Roadway awareness also was heightened this week with the start of the annual RAGBRAI ride that began Sunday with two separate accidents in southwest Iowa that resulted in the death of one rider — Iowa’s ninth bicyclist fatality this year — and another rider being seriously injured.
“I think cyclists are an important piece of that. When we talk about fatalities in general it’s the distracted driving, the drugged driving, the drunk driving and the drowsy driving that seems to be the problem,” Ryan noted. “For cyclists they are always at the disadvantage when it’s any kind of vehicle that causes issues.”
Ryan said her agency has pushed for the Legislature to make Iowa’s current texting-while-driving law a primary rather than a secondary offense that she believes would make the law easier to enforce, send a message to the public to view the texting issue more seriously and allow state officials to draw down federal funding to assist in combatting distracted driving with more public education and awareness efforts.
“If you can change the public expectation, it really is going to help us a lot. If people realize that when they are distracted, they are putting people’s lives at risk, I think they’re much more likely to not be driving distracted,” she said.
“People need to focus on the road. You not only need to have both hands on the wheel, you need to have your brain engaged as well and it’s doesn’t make any difference what your distraction is — whether it’s cell phones or food or children or just being fatigued or anything else – you have to be able to pay attention to what you’re doing because going that fast you can do serious damage to yourself and other people,” she added.