An Iowa Senate subcommittee passed Senate File 60 on Monday morning. The bill would prohibit the use of an electronic device while driving unless it is in a voice-activated or hands-free mode. Republican Senators Mark Lofgren and Mike Klimesh joined Democrat Sen. Claire Celsi in advancing the bill to the full Senate Transportation Committee.
The bill includes exceptions for:
*Public safety agencies
*Healthcare professionals in an emergency
*Reporting an emergency
*Responding to a transit-specific situation
*Operating an implement of husbandry
*Utility maintenance employee or contractor
*Transportation Network company driver while the vehicle is not in motion
*Accessing or using Fleet Management System
Celsi said she used to have reservations about the idea due to the cost, but now believes technology has caught up and that there is a safe way to do it hands-free in the car.
“I had a constituent this last year, actually it was about two years ago now, who had a young son, 12 years old, who was killed in a motor vehicle while an adult who was on his phone was driving,” Celsi said. “I was close enough to the family to attend the wake and will never forget seeing a 12-year-old little boy in a casket because of careless use of a hand-held device in a vehicle. The family, of course, was broken up and devastated. I’m just glad we’re doing this today.”
Colonel Nathan Fulk said crash data from 2021 suggests one-in-five crashes involved some form of distracted driving.
“We see a pretty prolific issue out there that we would like to address,” he said.
Current code prohibits texting while driving, but is very difficult to enforce.
Lieutenant Troy Bailey with the Iowa State Patrol said there has been a steady increase of distracted drivers. In Iowa, 1,693 people died in crashes from 2018-2022 he said.
“That’s almost 1,700 people who didn’t go back to their families,” he said. “That’s where we feel this is so important. This is one of our four core initiatives when it comes to violations.”
Nick Laning of the IBEW Iowa State Conference said last year two workers were hit and killed by a driver along the side of the road using their hand-held device. So the IBEW is taking a much more proactive stance.
“They’ve been supportive in the past but even more so as a worker safety issue,” he said.
Brett Tjepkes, the bureau chief of the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, said a 2021 survey revealed 73 percent of Iowans admit to using their cell phones while driving despite the “enormous potential for deaths and injuries” it leads to.
“Distracted drivers aren’t a threat to themselves, they’re also a threat to other people on the road,” he said. “We hear many stories of families that have been devastated by this.”
Fulk was asked if people would still be able to push a button if necessary under the proposed law, and he said it would allow for “one touch.”
Mike Triplett with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation said members of that organization have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in safety technology, including technology in the dashboard. The group supports the bill because it is written in such a way that the electronic devices in the dashboard of new cars are not considered hand-held devices and therefore are excluded from the definition of an electronic device.
Various victims of distracted driving spoke in support of the bill. An individual from Clive said he was forced out of the bike lane last year and spent 17 days in the hospital and underwent two surgeries after being propelled into a concrete barrier.
“By the way, the driver never stopped,” he said.
Insurance lobbyists expressed support for the bill, calling it a top priority. Matt McKinney of Nationwide Insurance said this legislation “works.” A study in 2018 showed the states that adopted such laws saw a 15 percent reduction in fatalities, and some states saw a 20 percent drop.
Iowa Public Transit Association supports the bill and is thankful for exemptions for public transit buses that don’t have the necessary technology.
The relatives of a victim who was killed by a distracted driver said the bill is necessary as current code is outdated.
“In order for law enforcement to do their job we need to be on top of what using your phone means,” she said.
The parents of the victim said they were at the meeting to give voice to their daughter who couldn’t be there because she was killed. The driver “literally got away with murder,” they said.
“We feel that technology is good, but only if it’s used properly and safely,” they said.
State Patrol’s report indicated the driver in the accident looked at their phone for more than 9.5 seconds.
“He never saw what he hit,” they said. “(He had) to turn around and find her body in a ditch. This is a horrible experience. We don’t want anybody else to go through this.”
It was also discussed whether someone could use the GPS component while driving. An officer from Iowa State Patrol said the driver would have to pull over and get off the roadway in order to touch the phone to alter a route.
Current law isn’t sufficient, officers with the Iowa State Patrol maintained. Officers can observe drivers on their phones, but many Iowans know the current law and are not forthcoming with the truth. Most drivers will say they were not texting and were instead activating GPS or something else.
“We have no right to take their phone at this point in time,” they said.
Other people will be honest and say they were texting someone right back, but those people are being written tickets for being honest while dishonest people get away.
Celsi said she would like to see the same law apply to individuals operating an implement of husbandry. She said it seems “a little silly” to require cars and trucks to follow this new law but not people with “huge, giant equipment” driving 5 miles an hour on the road where everyone else is going 60.
Lofgren said he is a distance runner and rides bicycles a little bit. Distracted driving is getting worse al of the time, he said, before committing to move the bill out of subcommittee.
Celsi said she would support the bill, but likely want to see it amended to remove the exemption for operating an implement of husbandry.
Senator Mike Klimesh said he likes the direction the bill is heading. He supported it as well.