cellphone driver

Iowa lawmakers are considering a bill that seeks to prohibit drivers from engaging in a distracting activity while operating a motor vehicle. (FILE PHOTO)

DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers are debating whether to allow law officers to issue distracted driving citations to cellphone users.

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, told a Senate subcommittee that distractions such as texting while driving have become “somewhat of an epidemic” on Iowa highways, but he is concerned the proposed language in Senate File 33 may be too broadly worded and encompass activities such as changing a radio channel or eating a hamburger while driving.

The bill seeks to prohibit drivers from engaging in a distracting activity while operating a motor vehicle. The proposal would repeal the current law, which bars a person from using a hand-held electronic communication device to write, send or read a text message while driving a motor vehicle and bans cellphone use outright for young drivers.

Current law is enforceable only as a secondary action when a police officer stops or detains a driver for a suspected violation of another motor vehicle law.

The bill would establish a broader offense of driving while engaged in a distracting activity, which is defined to mean any activity that is not immediately necessary to the operation of the motor vehicle and that impairs, or could reasonably be expected to impair, the person’s ability to drive safely. The bill specifies that the use of a wireless telephone is a distracting activity.

A person convicted of driving while distracted would be guilty of a simple misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $30. There also are enhanced fines and licensure sanctions for texting violations involving an accident that causes property damage, serious injury or death ranging up to $1,000 and a 180-day license suspension.

Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, expressed concern that the bill’s language might be too prescriptive, but he supported the idea of making distracted driving a moving violation.

“If you’re weaving all over, they ought to be able to pull you over,” he said.

The bill would make driving while distracted enforceable as a primary offense, but a violation could not be considered by the state Department of Transportation for purposes of driver’s license suspensions or habitual offender determinations. The proposed law change would not apply to a driver when the motor vehicle is at a complete stop off the traveled portion of the roadway and it would not apply to members of public safety agencies while engaged in the performance of official duties.

Rita Bettis, legislative director and staff attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, said her group opposes the measure.

“We believe the bill will undermine traffic safety goals and can reasonably be expected to lead to discretionary traffic stops by police with disparate effects on persons of color,” she said. “Research has shown that these laws are ineffective in reducing texting while driving, may have unintentional negative safety consequences and invite law enforcement to engage in discretionary stops.”

She also said there is evidence suggesting that distracted driving laws increase dangerous driving.

“Rather than not texting while driving, drivers tend to engage in more dangerous texting by lowering their hands to avoid detection by police,” Bettis said. “This leads to an increase in accidents, rather than reducing them.”

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, a subcommittee member who could not attend Tuesday’s meeting, later said he was supportive of the measure, so Bowman indicated he likely would schedule a second meeting to consider moving it to the full Senate Transportation Committee for consideration.