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Bill to toughen anti-texting law advances

Feb 09, 2017


Gazette Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — Iowa senators voted Wednesday to approve legislation that would make it a primary offense to write, send or read text messages while driving even though some admitted they would like the state to go farther to ban hand-held smart phones as a way to reduce distractions.

“This is a big, big deal,” said Sen. Michael Breitbach, D-Strawberry Point, after the Senate Transportation Committee voted 12-0 to move the anti-texting bill to the Senate debate calendar.

“I think everybody is fully aware of the dangers of distracted driving,” said Breitbach, who hoped an issue that has stalled in the Legislature in past sessions would get new attention after Iowa’s traffic deaths spiked in the last year. Iowa’s highway death toll rose from a five-year low of 317 in 2013 to 403 in 2016.

“It doesn’t seem like we’ve been able to come to agreement between the Senate and House to get it passed,” he said. “Personally, I would like to see us go a little further but I want to make sure that we get texting while driving as a primary offense, so I pushing that we move this bill.”

Iowa is currently one of five states that classify texting while driving as a secondary offense for adults, meaning law enforcement officers are not allowed to pull over a driver unless they suspect another violation also may have been committed. Iowa has a texting ban for young drivers. The bill being considered would eliminate the provision that prohibits a peace officer from stopping or detaining a person solely for a violation which relates to texting while driving.

The proposed primary offense considered a moving violation punishable with a scheduled fine would include but not be limited to texts, email, social media and talking. Exemptions would be maintained for existing public safety and emergency use.

“We need to keep moving forward. It’s not going to solve itself with this bill, even if it does get adopted by the House and signed by the governor,” said Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa. “It’s a step in the right direction. We need to focus on reducing fatalities and accidents.”

Earlier this week, Gov. Terry Branstad told reporters he has joined the chorus of Iowans calling for a ban on drivers’ use of hand-held phones as part of an effort to address the problem of distracted and impaired drivers on Iowa roadways.

Iowa is not among the 15 states that prohibit drivers’ use of hand-held phones. Under current law, a driver may use a hand-held phone to search for contacts, select music, type addresses into a navigation system and play games. Simply making texting while driving a primary offense would not make the law enforceable, Branstad said.

After Wednesday’s committee action, Breitbach said he would like to see the Legislature consider a ban on hand-held devices but as a separate bill.

“I want to make sure that this can pass muster in the Senate and in the House, get that taken care of and then we can address the hands free,” he said. “We’ve got a bill ready. We want to do the doable now.”

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