Lawmakers try again to restrict cellphones in vehicles

By: - January 23, 2023 4:25 pm

Iowa lawmakers are trying again to require drivers to use only hands-free cellphones or electronic devices behind the wheel. (Photo via Canva)

A bill that would dramatically expand the prohibitions against using a cellphone and other electronic devices while driving was advanced unanimously by an Iowa Senate subcommittee Monday.

Under current law, drivers are barred from sending and viewing electronic messages while their vehicles are in motion but are allowed to use phones for navigation. The new legislation would prohibit the use of most portable electronic devices unless they can be operated without hands, aside from a single touch of a device to activate them.

Studies have shown that the distractions posed by such devices can have a profound impact on driving and can even be less safe than driving while intoxicated, but similar bills failed to get enough support for passage last year.

The legislation follows the 2020 death of a 28-year-old Charles City woman who was struck while riding her bicycle by a pickup truck driver who admitted to looking at his phone just before the collision but was not punished for it.

“We’re here to give her a voice because she can’t be here because the driver killed her and literally got away with murder,” Peter Bengtson, the woman’s father, said during the transportation subcommittee hearing. “There was no penalties. He did not go through the trial process. We do support this bill for obvious reasons.”

A pickup truck struck and killed a bicyclist in 2020 while its driver looked at a cellphone. (Photo exhibit from Iowa court records)

Colby William Elliott, 45, of Clarksville, was charged with homicide by vehicle for the death of Ellen Bengtson on Aug. 2, 2020, according to court records. He admitted to looking at his phone and didn’t know what he had struck as he drove that day about 7:40 p.m., while the sun was still up, court records show.

His attorney successfully argued that Elliott merely viewed a notification of a message on his phone and did not run afoul of the 2017 state law that prohibits viewing and sending electronic messages while driving. A judge dismissed the case last year. Elliott had faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

“Merely viewing the notification of the message is not sufficient to rise to the level of the conduct statutorily designated as recklessness,” the attorney, Robert Rehkemper, wrote in a court filing. “If this were so, a driver of a motor vehicle would be playing ‘notification roulette’ anytime they looked at a phone while driving.”

Others recounted similar stories during the Monday subcommittee hearing, including Sen. Claire Celsi, a West Des Moines Democrat who was among the three subcommittee members to recommend the bill for passage.

She “will never forget seeing a 12-year-old little boy in a casket because of careless use of a handheld device in a vehicle,” she said. “The family, of course, was broken up and devastated. I used to think that we couldn’t do this because it was too expensive. And I do believe, though, that the technology has caught up with this now and that you can have a safe way to do hands-free in the car.”

Drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely to be in a collision that causes injuries than those who are not using the devices, according to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

All states prohibit messaging while driving except for Montana, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. About 25 states prohibit the handheld use of cellphones while driving in most circumstances.

No one spoke against the Senate bill at the Monday hearing, although Celsi said she might propose an amendment to strike from it an exception for people “operating an implement of husbandry,” which she assumed references farmers.

“It seems a little silly to require cars and trucks to do it and not folks that are out there with their huge, giant equipment that drives 5 miles per hour on the road when everyone else is going 60,” she said. “I personally have had family members that were nearly killed in that situation.”

The bill also adds exemptions for people who are reporting an emergency, using a two-way radio, operating a vehicle for public transportation, and certain utility and transportation workers.

On-duty public safety officials and heath care workers responding to emergencies were already exempted from the current law, along with people who receive emergency, traffic and weather alerts. The Senate bill eliminates the caveat for traffic alerts.

“Watching younger people try to acclimate to technology and driving sometimes is kind of scary, and I think this heads us in the right direction,” said Sen. Mike Klimesh, a Spillville Republican and member of the subcommittee.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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