DES MOINES — Sending a text message while driving down the road can get you pulled over under a new Iowa law.
A couple of months in, some Iowa law enforcement officials say the new law has been a useful tool in attempting to change drivers’ behavior — in other words, to get drivers to stop texting while driving.
But even more law enforcement officials say the new law still is not strong enough; they say what’s needed to truly make roads safer is an outright ban on using your hands to operate your phone while driving.
“I support a more robust hand-held ban," Waterloo, Iowa, Police Chief Dan Trelka said. "A lone police officer trying to operate a squad car and observe a violation, as the law currently stands, creates a distracting scenario itself.”
"We haven't issued a lot (of citations) because when people see a squad car, they're going to stop unless you have someone that's really not paying attention," Cedar Falls, Iowa, Public Safety Director Jeff Olson said. "In my personal car, you see them texting a lot. If they see a squad car, they put it down. It's like when you see a squad car, you look at your speedometer."
However, Olson said he wouldn't "go so far" as to support a total hand-held ban.
"Using the phone as a navigation device, that's helpful, more than using a map," which may take a motorist's eyes off the road. "The problem with talking on the phone is the dialing aspect. If you're hands-free, that's really nice." Then, he added, there are some people "who can't do two things at once" and should just focus on driving.
On July 1, a new state law gave Iowa law enforcement a new way to combat drivers who compose text messages while behind the wheel.
Before the new law, law enforcement could not stop drivers primarily for suspected texting while driving; they needed another reason to make the stop, and only then could they cite the driver for texting if that also was an issue.
Under the new law, law enforcement can stop drivers just for suspecting texting while driving.
“I think it’s a good start,” Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals said. “For compliance sake, we need to do a lot more education and try to ween everybody off their phone while they’re driving.”
Distracted driving was a factor in 1,230 vehicle crashes and 11 traffic deaths in Iowa in 2016, according to state Department of Transportation data.
Nationally, distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives in 2015, according to federal transportation department figures.
Mobile phone use is at an all-time high in the U.S.: 95 percent of Americans had one in 2016, up from 65 percent in 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. And in a 2011 federal study, a third of drivers admitted they read or sent text messages in the previous month.
With cellphone use and texting more common, most states have taken steps to address texting while driving. Texting while driving is against the law in 47 states, and hand-held use of mobile phones is illegal in 14 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Of the 47 states that ban texting while driving, 43 consider it a primary offense, something for which an officer can stop a vehicle. Iowa’s new law moved the state into that category.
“I just think this is a good first step to educate people. And everybody can do a better job of not touching their phone while we’re driving,” Pals said. “We’re all using our phones too much.”
Officers: Law is too weak
In July and August, the first two months under the new state law, the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s Department made 19 traffic “contacts,” or stops, for using an electronic device while driving. Nine were issued citations, and 10 were given warnings, Pals said.
But some law enforcement agencies still find the new law difficult to enforce and think it remains too weak.
Tony Wingert, with the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Department, said the department has not yet issued a single texting-while-driving citation. He said that on rural roads it is more difficult to catch a driver in the act of texting.
Only three texting-while-driving citations were issued by the Linn County Sheriff’s Department in July and August, according to Sheriff Brian Gardner.
Gardner is among the law enforcement officials who think the new state law is a good step but does not go far enough.
Many law enforcement officials say it is difficult to cite a driver for texting while driving because the state law still allows some hand-held phone use, including to make calls or use navigation programs.
“The problem that I have with the new law, although it does obviously give us primary authority to stop someone purely for a texting violation, the problem I think that we as law enforcement officers are going to have is to be able to convince a judge or a jury that in our view the person was texting as opposed to one of the allowable manipulations of the keypad,” Gardner said. “I much would have preferred a hands-free driving bill where you’re not allowed to manipulate the phone in your hand, you do it all through Bluetooth (hands-free, wireless technology) or through your vehicle.
“Yes, we did make gains in allowing this to be a primary offense, but it still has some enforcement concerns.”
Ban is needed
Gardner said the best way to enhance public safety is to reduce the number of distractions for drivers, and one way to move toward that goal is to ban all hand-held phone use while driving.
“I think that’s the point we need to get to,” he said. “Stop the distractions that exist while we’re operating our vehicles. It’s the distractions that lead to the accidents that we have, some fatal accidents that we’ve had. So I would much prefer, as would many other law enforcement professionals, would prefer to get those phones, get those items out of drivers’ hands and allow them to concentrate more on the task at hand, that being driving safely.”
The Cedar Rapids Police Department also would support a hands-free law, according to Greg Buelow, the city’s safety communications coordinator.
Cedar Rapids police issued 12 citations for using an electronic communication device while driving in July and August, Buelow said.
“While the new texting and driving legislation is an important step in the right direction, it is still can be challenging for an officer to discern whether or not someone is dialing the phone or using GPS functions on their phone, which is still allowed. As long as there is an exception to the law, it does create some challenges,” Buelow said in an email. “Anything that causes a driver to not pay attention to the most important function at hand when operating a motor vehicle — which is the safe operation of the vehicle — can lead to issues.”
Iowa Sen. Tim Kapucian, who leads the Iowa Senate’s transportation committee, said he supports a more robust hand-held ban and he thinks state lawmakers will continue to debate such proposals. He was less sure that there are enough votes in support of a hand-held ban to pass it in the Iowa Legislature.
“I think that we will continue to explore that possibility (of passing a hand-held ban), and I think that’s the best way to handle it,” Kapucian said. “Whether there’s the wherewithal in the Legislature to pass that, I don’t know at this time if there’s enough votes to get that through. ...
“(Texting while driving) is a problem. Whether (a hand-held ban) happens or not I don’t know, but I think personally that’s the way I’d like to see it go.”