Iowa’s law banning texting while driving is failing to reduce road crashes, and officers seldom enforce it because of legal restrictions, an IowaWatch investigation shows.

Although texting-related crashes have been on the rise in recent years, Iowa convicted an average of only 2.5 drivers per county for texting last year, the investigation revealed.

Crash history reports from the Iowa Department of Transportation show that since the Iowa Legislature enacted it in July 2011, the law has done nothing to decrease cellphone-related crashes. Instead, the number of crashes has increased steadily.

The problem is worse than the statistics show because distracted driving often is not reported properly after a crash.

In this investigation, IowaWatch examined state laws, traffic reports, studies and crash data for Iowa and other states and interviewed visual attention specialists, traffic safety officials, experts, statisticians, legislators and law enforcement officers.

“Texting while driving has become ubiquitous,” said Mark Lowe, director of the Iowa DOT’s Motor Vehicle Division.

Data for 2013 remain preliminary but already show the highest number of phone-related crashes since 2009.

Although other states have passed strict bans on all hand-held phone use, Iowa legislators have debated but failed to pass a law that would make texting behind the wheel a primary offense, for which an officer needs no other reason to pull over a driver.

Iowa’s law inhibits enforcement by classifying the act as a secondary offense. This means law enforcement officers cannot execute a traffic stop unless the driver has committed some other violation, even if they spot a driver texting.

“It’s like dipping your toe in the water instead of throwing everybody in the pool,” state Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, said.

Bowman, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, voted for the bill to increase texting enforcement and said he was disappointed when the House didn’t take it up.

Almost all states have laws banning texting while driving, but only four do not enforce them as a primary offense: Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and Florida.

Iowa law prohibits the use of an electronic communication device to send, receive or read a text message or email while driving. The charge is a simple misdemeanor that comes with a fine of $30. The law does not apply to operating a GPS or entering a telephone number, which distraction specialists say carry the same increased risk.

Distracted or inattentive driving involving a cellphone has accounted for more than 7,000 crashes statewide in the past decade. In that time, it has taken the lives of 24 Iowans.

Allison Smith, a 17-year-old Stacyville, Iowa, student, became one of those numbers in November 2011 on her way home from school when her car plowed beneath a stopped school bus as she was texting on a phone.

She probably never saw the bus. Phone records and video from the school bus show Allison texting just before impact on U.S. 218 just east of St. Ansgar, Iowa. Crash investigators with the Iowa State Patrol later determined from airbag data that no braking happened. The driver and 21 children on the school bus escaped without injury.

“She always had a smile on her face,” said Allison’s mother, Lesa Smith, who works as a cook at an assisted-living facility. Lesa’s husband, Paul, is a farmer on the family’s farm in Stacyville.

Your typical high school girl, as Lesa Smith describes her, Allison was involved in school sports such as volleyball and basketball. She kept stats for St. Ansgar Community High School’s football team. She loved horses — especially her own, Penny — and was close with her older brother, Cole. Friends called her Ally.

Blocking the road to enforcement

The State Patrol has 358 officers, yet last year only 252 texting tickets were issued statewide. Sgt. Scott Bright, spokesman with the Patrol, points to these numbers to demonstrate the enforcement struggle on Iowa’s roadways.

Bright, a former trooper, has seen it all when it comes to distracted driving — women applying makeup, men shaving, people eating a bowl of cereal on the way to work, even drivers going down an interstate highway with a laptop computer on their lap working. But it seems he sees nothing more frequently than texting and driving.

During Bright’s 15- to 20-minute drive to work each day to the Iowa State Patrol Headquarters in Des Moines, he sees at least one or two people texting. Typical violations that lead to being pulled over and charged with texting and driving are erratic driving, weaving in the lane, dropping off onto the shoulder, varying speed and tailgating.

“If someone’s texting, it won’t take long before they’re weaving and in and out of their lanes,” said Trooper Bob Conrad with the Patrol’s division in Cedar Rapids, “and that is the biggest indicator.”

Law enforcement officers also have issued texting tickets if the person texting is spotted not wearing a seatbelt or driving with expired registration plates. Bright recalled watching a man recently texting next to him at a red light.

“You could see him hit the send button; then he would wait. I could actually see the light-up of the phone where the next message would come in, and then he’d respond to that message,” Bright said.

Under Iowa law, Bright could do nothing about it. That is, until the driver took off, and Bright saw the vehicle’s taillight was burned out.

Technically, the driver’s right to refuse to hand over the phone is protected under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits search and seizure without a warrant showing probable cause. But Conrad said drivers usually obey automatically.

“If the last text was a minute ago, and it took me 45 seconds to stop and walk up to the car, I pretty much know what they were doing,” Conrad said.

Citations also can be issued after the fact if officers take the time to obtain driver phone records that would indicate communication of half-completed text messages before the collision.

Spotty crash records

Adding to the problem is an inadequate system for collecting data on distraction-related crashes.

Traffic safety specialists point to the high number of crashes related to lane departures as an indicator that distracted driving is underreported. Lane departures — non-intentional drifting or weaving — account for 65 percent of all crashes, while phone-related distraction makes up less than 1 percent, according to crash history reports.

These accuracy shortcomings become a problem when it comes to gauging the success of distracted driving laws. Much of this responsibility lies with the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, a division of the Iowa Department of Public Safety that works to identify and remedy traffic safety problems.

Jennifer Parsons, distracted driving coordinator with the bureau, explains this difficulty by saying: “It is problematic since we don’t know how to best address the issue if we don’t have statistics to guide us.”

An outdated crash form also is to blame. Iowa law enforcement officers are using a crash form that is 13 years old. Iowa has resisted changes to the form, the IowaWatch investigation found, because doing so is an extensive process for the Iowa DOT. Alterations affect operations, such as officer training, data collection and analysis, and existing databases.

But the Iowa DOT has plans to revise the form to include an entirely separate category for driver distraction that will include electronic device options such as “manual operation on an electronic communication device (texting, typing, dialing)” and “talking on a handheld device.” It also will list “talking on a hands-free device” and “adjusting devices.”

How Iowa compares

Across the nation, states are adopting stricter laws banning phone use behind the wheel.

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Connecticut receives federal funding based on the specifics of its tight law and enforcement. Just this year, Illinois began ticketing drivers for use of any handheld device while driving. Other states have a graduated charge to its distraction tickets, higher with each offense.

Most states adopted a primary law from the beginning. Iowa hasn’t come close.

Iowa lawmakers still cannot get the support to update the state’s law. Virginia did recently. It adopted a secondary texting ban in 2010 but, as of last July, began enforcing the law as a primary offense. The accompanying fine is $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses.

Already, tickets have more than doubled from the previous year.

Every month since the new law in Virginia was adopted, crashes caused by texting or talking on a cellphone have been less than in the previous year, although sometimes just by a difference of two, data show.

In Illinois, the number of crashes caused by cellphone distraction has increased slightly each year since its law began. That state has had a primary law banning texting since 2010.

Today, Illinois drivers are under one of the country’s strictest bans; it prohibits holding a phone in the car. Even automated voice devices such as “Siri” on an iPhone are illegal behind the wheel, which leaves the only legal option for communication to use a Bluetooth interface in the vehicle itself.

Support from lawmakers

Smith remembers the exact time texting took the life of her daughter, Allison: 3:25 p.m.

Allison was driving home from school early the day she died. Normally, she stayed after school for volleyball practice, but that day, she drove home immediately after school got out, following a school bus.

The highway stop was a new one, Smith said. A family had just moved into the previously empty home.

“It was devastating for us,” Smith said. “She was our only girl and the baby of the family.”

Now, Smith’s message to lawmakers is that Iowa needs stronger laws to make people think twice about being on their phone.

“If it would save just one life, that would make it all the worthwhile,” she said.

State Rep. Clel Baudler is in a good position to make that happen. As chairman of the House Public Safety Committee and a former Iowa State trooper who served 34 years, he said he supports a stricter law for distracted driving.

He experienced dangerous texting and driving on his way to the Statehouse for the opening of the 2014 legislative session.

“I would’ve pulled her over myself for drunk driving — it was that bad,” Baudler, R-Greenfield, said.

(This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news Website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.)

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