DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad signed bills into law Monday that ban texting while driving and allow tougher steps for curtailing drunken and drugged driving in Iowa.
The governor said he was disappointed the Legislature did not adopt an outright ban on using hand-held devices while driving. But he said action to make texting while driving a primary offense and establishing the option of make drivers arrested for or convicted of impaired driving to participate in twice-daily sobriety monitoring — and requiring them to install ignition interlocks — will change driving behaviors.
“Together, these two bills, which passed with strong bipartisan support, will make an impact on improving highway safety in our state,” Branstad said in signing Senate File 234 and Senate File 444 with law officers, public safety advocates and legislators on hand to watch.
Drivers still will be able to use hand-held devices to make phone calls or check GPS directions. But beginning July 1, they can be pulled over by police and face a $30 fine for using them to write, send or view an electronic message.
“We truly are making a difference, and I think when people begin to realize how distracted they are when they’re driving, when they’re using their electronic devices, hands-free is going to be a much easier argument to make in the future,” Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan said.
During the legislative debate, proponents called it a bad idea to take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel while driving but applauded the incremental progress after Iowa’s traffic deaths rose from a five-year low of 317 in 2013 to 403 in 2016.
“This is a vast improvement over what we’ve got, and I think it will serve the purpose,” Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, the bill’s House manager, said after Monday’s ceremony.
Iowa currently is one of five states that classify texting while driving as a secondary offense for adults, meaning police are not allowed to pull over a driver unless they suspect another violation also has been committed. Iowa has a texting ban for young drivers. SF 234 eliminates the provision that prohibits an officer from stopping a driver solely for texting.
“I’m confident that this bill will help send a message to drivers in our state: eyes on the road driving,” said Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who said she would keep pushing for a ban on hand-held devices while driving.
The other law, SF 444, allows local jurisdictions to require drivers arrested for or convicted of impaired driving to undergo twice-daily sobriety monitoring.
The program is modeled after initiatives in South Dakota and other states. Under the law, local authorities could decide to place an offender in the program as a condition of bond, pretrial release, probation, parole or a temporary restricted license. The offender would be allowed to function in a job free from incarceration if he or she abstains from using alcohol or drugs for the sanction’s term.
An offender in the program also would be required to have an ignition interlock, which prevents a car from being started if the driver’s breath reveals he or she has been drinking.
A separate provision provides that texting while driving would be evidence of reckless driving in the event of a fatal crash. A driver who struck and killed someone would commit a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of no more than $10,000.
Branstad said the sobriety program holds “great promise,” given that a third of impaired driving fatalities are caused by repeat drunken driving offenders.
“This program is designed to address those Iowans who have repeatedly made the terrible decision to drive while intoxicated,” he said. "We like this program not only because it has proven results in South Dakota, but also because it puts the burden of the cost on the offender not on the taxpayer."