House, Senate advance bills requiring hands-free phones for drivers

By: - January 26, 2022 4:06 pm

(Photo illustration by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch. Capitol dome photo by Getty Images)

Iowa lawmakers and public safety advocates who have been working for years to ban the use of handheld phones and other devices behind the wheel expressed hope Wednesday that this is the year to get a bill to the governor’s desk.

Both the Iowa House and Senate are working on bills that would prohibit any handheld use of phones or other devices while driving, with some exceptions for people in certain jobs such as emergency workers or police.

Senate File 330, introduced last year, never reached the Senate floor. It sailed through a subcommittee Wednesday with no opposition.

Sen. Waylon Brown, R-Osage, was optimistic. “You know, I’m passionate about this issue. As chair of the Transportation Committee, I am fully committed to hopefully seeing this cross the finish line this year,” he said.

Capt. Mark Stein of the Iowa State Patrol told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that 354 vehicle crashes had been attributed to distracted driving in 2021, including six fatalities, 29 injuries and $4 million in damages.

Iowa’s current law bans some device uses such as sending text messages behind the wheel. It allows a driver to use a handheld device for some other purposes, such as navigation or phone calls. But lawmakers, many of whom spend hours each week behind the wheel, have been reluctant in recent years to pass more restrictive legislation.

Stein and other law officers said the existing law is difficult to enforce. “When we see someone driving down the road with a device in their hand, are they texting? What are they doing? They can claim they’re doing something else, that they weren’t actually texting. It makes it challenging to enforce the laws that are already in the books,” Stein said.

The Senate bill would create a $45 scheduled fine and moving violation if drivers are caught with a cell phone or electronic device in their hands while the vehicle is moving. Penalties would increase to $500 if the violator was involved in an accident or $1,000 if the accident caused a death. Drivers could still use hands-free, voice activated devices or those integrated into the vehicle.

The bill includes a list of exceptions for specific job-related activities, including police and emergency workers, utility and transit workers and others.

A similar bill, House File 392, which passed the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday, raises the scheduled fine to $100.

House advances bill limited to school, work zones

However, lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a separate bill, House Study Bill 561, that bans the use of handheld devices only in school zones or road construction zones. Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, who chaired the subcommittee, said he “probably shouldn’t call it Plan B,” noting the more expansive bill received strong support in committee. “This was just another idea,” he said.

Most of the lobbyists for law enforcement, the insurance industry and others who spoke during the subcommittee said they preferred the full ban on handheld devices for drivers. Most also suggested they would accept the more limited bill if the other didn’t pass.

Rep. Dennis Cohoon, D-Burlington, said he supported banning the devices in school or work zones as “common sense.” He questioned whether the more expansive bill would pass the House.

“We’ve continued to move forward and probably will reach the point of where we’re (passing) hands-free legislation, but I don’t know that’s going to go any further than yesterday at the committee. I’m not sure,” he said.

Advocates said they weren’t giving up on a hands-free law.

Susan Daemen, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association, told lawmakers she had been working on this issue for a decade.

“You know, I’ve been lobbying a long time. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be lobbying but I will lobby this issue until Iowa does it,” she said.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.