Pandemic turns Iowa into speedway, traffic fatalities rise

By: - June 8, 2021 4:23 pm

Greg Franck recalls the 2015 death of his bicycling son, who was hit by a drunken driver. (Screenshot via Iowa State Patrol Facebook page)

The state is looking to strengthen its driver’s license requirements after a surge in both speeding and traffic fatalities, officials said Tuesday.

One reason: Patrol officers say lately they’ve seen some of the riskiest driving of the past century.

The Iowa State Patrol plans several days of added enforcement of traffic laws this week and at other times this year. The agency also has backed a new public information campaign stressing driver’s responsibility in preventing deaths, officials said at a Statehouse news conference Tuesday afternoon.

The Patrol had hoped that the 12% reduction in traffic volume last year, during the heart of the coronavirus pandemic, would mean a drop in traffic fatalities, said Patrick Hoye, chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau. Instead, 337 people died on Iowa roads, the highest total in four years. 

“Traffic enforcement reported some of the worst driving habits in decades,” Hoye told a Statehouse news conference. About a dozen officers stood behind him near two patrol vehicles destroyed in accidents. 

The 119 traffic fatalities this year are up 25% from the same period last year, but similar to levels of the three years before that, state records show. 

The goal is to reduce traffic fatalities to below 300 this year, a threshold the state has failed to reach since 1925, said Col. Nathan Fulk, Patrol chief. The ultimate goal is zero fatalities, officials said. 

“Since the pandemic, we’ve encountered some of the most dangerous driving we’ve witnessed in our 85-year history,” Fulk said. “Excessive speed and impaired driving skyrocketed in 2020.

“This year, speeds of 25 mph or more over the speed limit are up 36%. Speeds over 100 mph are still up 32%,” Fulk added. 

One recent stop involved a motorist driving over 100 mph who had a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit. Another driver exceeding 100 mph a few weeks ago mentioned being in a hurry to get to a gas station, Fulk said.  

Last year, a college student driving 110 mph attributed the speed to being in a hurry to get to a Minnesota campus. Last Saturday, a trooper clocked a motorist at 108 mph and later discovered the person had a blood alcohol level nearly twice the limit. 

“We are feeling the impact of poor driving behaviors,” Fulk said. 

Greg and Jan Franck of Ankeny lost their son to one of those reckless drivers. Wade Franck, a widely known bicyclist, was hit by a drunken driver while riding in Des Moines in 2015. 

Greg Franck said he wants to help prevent other parents from facing the pain of the first birthday, first Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, without a loved one. 

“I wake up in the night knowing that Wade’s death was entirely preventable,” Franck said. “Our 41-year-old son didn’t have to die. It was the offender’s life-changing bad choice to drink all night with his buddies that killed him.”

Scott Marler, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, said distractions have been a big element in traffic fatalities, too. 

The state wrote 1,500 citations for speeding in excess of 100 miles per hour, and about 30% of the fatalities involved drunken driving, Patrol statistics show. The state has seen a 14% increase in distracted driving this year, Marler said. 

“We need people to slow down, to buckle up, to put the phone down and to not drive impaired,” he added. 

A new state information campaign uses the slogan, “The power is in your hands.” 

Iowa is not among the 30 states with hands-free laws governing cell phone use, though it does ban texting while driving. Lawmakers declined to pass hands-free legislation again in the most recent session, but officers vowed to continue to push the bill. 

Marler said his agency plans to review requirements for driver training and has emphasized road-safety work in the five-year construction plan. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.