Hands-free driving legislation remains stalled as highway fatalities rise

By: - August 9, 2022 11:53 am

Lawmakers have spent more than four years debating legislation to require hands-free devices for drivers. (Photo by Andrew Kennard for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

 Highway fatalities are rising in Iowa and law enforcement officials believe the state’s difficult-to-enforce laws on distracted driving are playing a role.

 There have been 197 fatalities in crashes on Iowa roads, the Iowa Department of Transportation reported Tuesday. This is nearly a 9% increase from the five-year average of 181 fatalities and a 5% increase from last year’s 187 highway deaths.

Iowa State Patrol spokesman: Distracted driving deaths likely ‘underreported’

The Iowa Department of Public Safety supports hands-free driving legislation, which has stalled in Iowa for the past four legislative sessions. 

Distraction by an electronic device has been involved in up to 14 fatalities a year in Iowa between 2015 and 2020, according to the DOT. Overall in 2020, almost 2% of all motor vehicle crashes in Iowa involved drivers distracted by a phone or other electronic device. But the numbers may not tell the whole story, law enforcement officials say.

“We’re just trying to really drive down our fatality rate here in Iowa,” said Ryan DeVault of the Iowa State Patrol. “And honestly, the distracted driving statistics that anybody can look up, we in law enforcement believe that those are probably underreported.”

Current Iowa law bans texting and driving, like almost all states, but drivers over the age of 18 can make phone calls and use navigation systems. Thirty states have laws banning the use of handheld cell phones while driving. 

A hands-free driving bill was introduced in the Iowa Senate in January 2019. Three years later, the hands-free bill under consideration was titled Senate File 2141, with a similar counterpart in the House, House File 2129. Neither these hands-free bills nor a House bill that would ban the use of handheld electronic communication devices in school or road work zones have been passed by the Iowa House or Senate. 

Police: Iowa’s current law is difficult to enforce

The hands-free bills would ban electronic device use while driving, with exceptions for voice-activated or hands-free mode and select situations, such as receiving a weather or emergency alert. The bill’s counterpart in the Senate also includes an exception for accessing fleet management systems. Breaking the proposed law would incur a fine and a moving violation, which the bill said can be considered in a suspension of a driver’s license or for habitual offender status. 

DeVault said the hands-free bill would “be more easily enforceable for us because you either have a phone in your hand or you don’t.”

Dave MacFarland of the Iowa State Police Association said people can use exceptions in the current law for uses that “we know are unsafe.”

“So currently, what we have in place now is very hard for the officers to enforce the law,” MacFarland said. “So if you see someone on their phone, it’s hard to tell from … behind them or even beside them: What are they doing?”

MacFarland said most of the time, when officers from his department get a warrant to prove that someone was using their phone, the case involves a serious injury or fatality. 

Banning handheld device use while driving has the support of about 70% of Iowans, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll conducted between Feb. 28 and March 2. All but one of the lobbyists who registered their positions on any of the three hands-free bills were in favor or undecided. 

Lawmakers offer theories on why bills haven’t advanced

Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge, the floor manager for the hands-free bill in the House, said a poll of legislators found enough support in the House to pass the bill. But there was not enough support in the House Ways and Means Committee, she said.

Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel, vice chair of the committee, said he thought the committee wasn’t necessarily against the bill, and that their main concern was “different potential reasons that someone could be pulled over for not using hands free,” such as checking a watch. 

“Some of those questions weren’t 100% answered for all of our members on the Ways and Means Committee, and so that’s why it didn’t move forward,” Nordman said. 

Rep. David Jacoby, D-Coralville, the ranking member, said he wished the House’s hands-free bill had been assigned a subcommittee, where legislators could discuss the bill and hear from the public. 

Meyer also said she still could have advanced the bill to the House floor. She said that her leadership said if the bill came to the floor and passed, the Iowa Senate wouldn’t take it up. 

“I’m going back with the same bill next year,” Meyer said.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, was the floor manager for the bill in the Senate. He said it sounded like Senate leadership wasn’t interested in passing it because “there’s not a high level of interest in the House,” he said in early April. The hands-free driving bill’s counterpart in the Senate passed unanimously through the Transportation Committee in January but was sent back to the committee in March.

Sen. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, said in an email that he has worked on this bill for the past three years and that members of both houses have demonstrated “strong support” for it in surveys he conducted. He thinks that there must be legislative leadership members opposed to hands-free legislation, “because it has never been allowed to come up for a vote.”

“With elections coming up in November, leadership changes and committee assignments will take place and we will be able to see what kind of support this legislation will have going forward,” Lofgren said. “I will continue to work on getting this legislation through, and feel confident that we will be successful in making Iowa roads safer to travel.”

House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl declined comment, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, Senate Transportation Committee chair Waylon Brown and House Speaker Pat Grassley did not respond to requests for comment.

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Andrew Kennard
Andrew Kennard

Andrew Kennard is a freelance reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch. Kennard, a rising junior at Drake University, is interning for Native News Online and has worked for The Times-Delphic, Drake's student newspaper.