Efforts are underway to update Iowa’s distracted driving laws in response to several fatal crashes in which drivers were found to be using their phones while driving. A campaign called Drive Safe Iowa has launched a petition to collect names of supporters to update Iowa’s distracted driving laws. Drive Safe Iowa is encouraging Iowans to go to www.drivesafeiowa.org and sign the pledge demanding legislation to require drivers to only use cell phones in hands-free or voice-activated mode while driving.
Advocates have prioritized legislation banning handheld cell phone use while driving unless in hands-free mode after a judge dismissed charges in a Charles City distracted driving case. The driver admitted to being distracted by a Facebook notification about a boat for sale when he hit and killed 28-year-old Ellen Bengtson who was bicycling in the same direction.
“Ellen deserved to return home safely after a Sunday afternoon bike ride. She did nothing wrong,” said Peter and Jo Ann Bengtson, parents of Ellen. “The driver did not even know what he had hit because he had his eyes off the road and on his phone. Sadly her future vanished, and our family was ripped apart, all due to irresponsible phone use. Please help us stop these preventable tragedies, for Ellen’s sake.”
Iowa legislators have worked on similar legislation during the last several sessions that have passed committees in both the Iowa House and Senate but failed to be called for debate by either chamber despite bi-partisan support. A new session begins in January 2023 and legislators see renewed energy to pass a hands-free law.
“Whether you are cycling, running, walking, or just someone out enjoying nature, you are at risk due to distracted drivers,” says Sen. Mark Lofgren (R-Muscatine). “Hands-free is not perfect, but it will help make our streets safer than they are now. We will be educating some of our new legislators on this issue, and we hope to prevail in the 90th General Assembly.”
According to the Iowa DOT Crash Analysis Tool, there were 1,084 crashes in 2021 involving drivers distracted by an electronic device. Distracted driving crashes have doubled in 2001, but fatal crashes have increased 10-fold. In 2001, only one person was killed by a distracted motorist. In 2021, 10 people were killed by distracted drivers on Iowa roadways.
“This has got to stop,” says Mark Wyatt of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. “While vulnerable users like bicyclists and pedestrians are fatally susceptible to distracted driving, this affects all users of Iowa roadways including motorists and operators of ag equipment.”
Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that strong laws regarding distracted driving are making a difference in states that have enacted them. So far, 47 states have banned texting while driving and 16 states have hands-free laws.
Iowans who share the belief that distracted driving needs attention in our legislature are encouraged to visit www.drivesafeiowa.org (or if not driving, text HANDSFREE to 52886) and sign the petition to pass a hands-free law in Iowa during this legislative session.