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Bill that would make Iowa a hands-free driving state stalls in the legislature

As of May 1, the Iowa House and Senate have still not brought bills that would limit the use of electronic devices while driving to full votes on the floor of each chamber. 

Rep. Ann Meyer (R-Webster) is the floor manager of a bill that would restrict most uses of electronic devices aside from voice-activated or hands-free use. Meyer said that a poll of legislators showed that the House as a whole supports the bill, but she does not have the votes to get it through the Ways and Means Committee.

“My hope is next year we’re going to have a new makeup, and I will be able to get it through [the committee],” Meyer said.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom (R-Mahaska) is the floor manager of a similar bill in the Senate. He said that by his understanding, Senate leadership “isn’t really interested in passing something here that doesn’t survive in the House.” The Senate Transportation Committee unanimously advanced the Senate bill on Jan. 31, but it was referred back to the same committee on March 24. 

Current law bans texting and driving, but not other uses of electronic devices. Senate File 2141 only allows for voice-activated or hands-free use and a handful of select situations. 

“We see this all the time,” Meyer said in a previous interview on Feb. 7. “When I’m driving down to Des Moines on 35, I see people that don’t even look up from their phone, if I’m passing them on the left. It’s an issue.”

In 2020, 947 crashes took place in Iowa that involved drivers who were distracted by an electronic device, including four deaths, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. That’s almost 2 percent of all motor vehicle crashes in Iowa in 2020. In an interview on Feb. 11, Sergeant Alex Dinkla with the Iowa State Patrol said statistics for distracted driving are “way far underreported.”

Dinkla said the bill would help officers enforce the distracted driving law because “if we see that device in a hand, we know that you’re not supposed to do that.” He said the current law that prohibits minors from using handheld electronic devices while driving presents another challenge, as it may be difficult for officers to tell what a driver’s age is before making a traffic stop. 

The Des Moines Register reported on March 18 that a Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found that 70 percent of Iowa adults support a ban on handheld electronic device use while driving. 30 states currently prohibit the use of handheld cell phones while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

“And you know, our hope is that we in Iowa here can prevent some of these preventable crashes from happening, and this is one step closer towards doing that and ultimately lowering our fatality rate,” Dinkla said. 

A bill that would ban the use of handheld devices while driving in road work and school zones is also stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee. Meyer said her goal is to pass the broad ban on device use while driving, with this more limited ban as a backup. 

“If we can just ban this in those two zones, to protect kids and to protect construction workers that are on the road, that can be injured, we’ll be doing something,” Meyer said.

In a Feb. 9 interview, Rozenboom said he thinks that banning device use in just school or work zones “falls far short of what we need to do.”

The broader ban doesn’t ban all device usage, though. It allows drivers to use single-touch or verbal commands to activate or deactivate an electronic device or one of its features. This doesn’t permit drivers to read electronic messages or access video calls, non-navigation video content, video streaming or gaming data. 

The Senate and House broad bans have other exceptions, including caveats that would allow drivers to view emergency and weather alerts, report emergencies. The Senate bill allows for access to fleet management systems. 

The Senate’s bill includes a $45 fine, while the similar bill in the House would increase the scheduled fine to $100, so the chambers would need to reconcile these bills to pass a law. Violators of either bill would also be guilty of a moving violation, which can be considered for the suspension of a driver’s license or for habitual offender status. Under these bills, officers would give warnings to violators of this law until Jan. 1, 2023.

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