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DES MOINES — Traffic safety concerns are driving some Iowa lawmakers to distraction.

Separate unsuccessful attempts were made in the House and Senate this session to spur talk of taking cellphones out of the hands of all Iowa drivers.

Current law bans texting for all drivers, and it bars teenagers operating vehicles under restricted or intermediate licenses as well as instructional or school permits from using cellphones or electronic devices while driving.

Key legislators on transportation issues said the issue of addressing distracted driving was too complicated to move on this year, but they plan to solicit information from research experts and law enforcement officers during the interim to determine whether to pursue a bill later.

“People know there is a problem but have been unable to come to an agreement on exactly how it’s defined, and it is very difficult to define,” said Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, who authored Senate Bill 33, which sought to prohibit drivers from engaging in a distracting activity while operating a motor vehicle.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at its website, calls distracted driving “a dangerous epidemic on America’s roadways,” noting that 3,331 people were killed and 387,000 people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011.

In Iowa, 81 deaths were reported in 17,504 crashes that were associated with inattentive or distracted driving from 2003 to 2012, according to Michael Pawlovich of the state Department of Transportation. More than a third of the accidents and 26 deaths in the DOT crash data involved the use of a phone or other device.

Pawlovich noted, however, that “people in the field believe this is way understating the problem.”

Enforcement is difficult

Sgt. Scott Bright of the Iowa State Patrol agreed, saying it is difficult for law enforcement officers to pinpoint what a driver may have been doing when a highway mishap occurs. Investigators can subpoena phone records when a death occurs to see if a cellphone was being used at the time of an accident, but otherwise, he said it is difficult to prove drivers were acting in a careless or distracted manner.

“Distracted driving is a problem that we’re facing, and the way things are going it’s probably going to get worse,” Bright said. “There are a lot of different distractions that we’re seeing out there. It’s not just the cellphones.

“When I’ve been out on the roadway, I’ve seen individuals eating bowls of cereal. I’ve seen men combing their hair. I’ve seen women putting makeup on. I’ve seen people actually working on laptop computers as they’re driving down the interstate. I’ve seen an individual shaving going down the interstate.

“When people are involved in a type of activity like that, they’re taking their No. 1 task at hand, which is focusing on their driving, and they’re focusing on something else they are doing in the car, and that’s when the collision is going to occur. Social media is becoming a huge problem.”

During the 20-month period from July 1, 2011, through Feb. 20, Iowa State Patrol troopers wrote 181 citations and issued 93 warnings for drivers who were texting while behind the wheel, Bright said. The violation is a simple misdemeanor punishable by a $30 scheduled fine. There are enhanced fines and license sanctions for texting violations involving an accident that caused property damage, serious injury or death ranging up to $1,000 and a 180-day license suspension.

Research indicates that sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, which Bright said would be equivalent to someone driving the length of an entire football field with their eyes blindfolded.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize the seriousness of what’s happening,” said Rep. Curt Hanson, a Fairfield Democrat.

Hanson taught driver’s education courses for 43 years and co-authored a bill — House File 412 — that sought to prohibit a person from driving a motor vehicle while using a mobile telephone unless the device was specifically designed and configured to allow for hands-free listening and talking and was used that way.

New technology might help

Hanson held out hope that advances in technology will “be one of our salvations” in that car manufacturers are equipping new vehicles with hands-free communications capabilities. But Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, worried that more and better devices could add to the distractions, and Johnson said most of the vehicles on the road are older models transporting drivers with hand-held devices.

“I think technology is going to solve technology,” said Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, “so I don’t know that we necessarily need to put more things into law and more things into the code. Let’s take a deep breath, really take a look at the whole situation and not just have a knee-jerk reaction and pass a law.”

Byrnes said he has three children and gets distracted when they’re in the back seat of his vehicle fighting, but it’s not something that a legislative change could address as much as people taking personal responsibility when operating their vehicles.

Proponents of tougher laws to curb distracted driving point to study results indicating that head-set cellphone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use and that driving while using a cellphone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by about a third.

Bright said there is no state law dealing specifically with distracted driving so most violations associated with swerving outside of lanes or impeding the flow of traffic are cited as careless driving.

Iowa law treats texting as a secondary offense, he added, meaning that officers cannot use a suspected violation of the ban on writing, sending or reading text or electronic mail messages while operating a motor vehicle as a primary reason to make a traffic stop. A texting violation could be cited if authorities have probable cause to stop a vehicle for committing a separate offense.

“The law that’s in place is very hard for law enforcement to enforce,” he said. “We can’t stop an individual just for texting as they go down the interstate. I think if the laws were a little bit stricter, I think we would see a decrease in the amount of fatalities that we’re seeing out there.”

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