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Why Does Iowa Struggle to Pass Hands-Free Driving Laws?

Despite widespread support for the legislation, state lawmakers have failed to pass a ban on motorist handheld use of cellphones. From 2014 to 2023, 78 people in Iowa were killed by distracted drivers using a cellphone or other handheld device.

Ellen Bengtson rides during the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa in 2018, two years before she died after being hit by a pickup truck near Charles City. According to a state crash report, the pickup driver was opening an app on his cellphone and struck her bicycle while driving over 55 mph. But the case was dismissed under Iowa's current and limited distracted driving law. (Photo courtesy of Peter and JoAnn Bengtson)

One in an occasional series of articles about issues that are likely to return for debate in next year's session of the Iowa Legislature.

Ellen Bengtson was riding her bicycle near Charles City on a sunny Sunday evening in 2020 when she was killed by a driver who was opening an app on his cellphone.

The driver admitted on video at the scene that he'd been looking at social media on his phone and had not seen her before his Ford F-150 drifted and struck her from behind while going over 55 mph, an Iowa State Patrol crash report stated.

The driver sent text messages telling others he was on his cellphone when the collision occurred, the report said, and that he never saw the 28-year-old chemical engineer riding on the shoulder. Investigators said cellphone data and records back that up.

A photo exhibit submitted by prosecutors shows Ellen Bengtson's mangled bicycle she was riding near Charles City in 2020 after being hit and killed by a driver who investigators said was opening an app on his cellphone. Also pictured is the damaged Ford F-150 that struck her from behind at 55-plus mph. (Supplied photo)

The driver was charged with reckless homicide by vehicle, punishable with up to 10 years in prison. The case seemed open-and-shut. But because Iowa lacks a hands-free-while-driving law, the judge dismissed the case.

The driver walked free.

The judge and defense attorney focused on whether the driver was manually manipulating his phone at the time of the crash. The judge found there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction under the state's prohibition on texting while driving, enacted in 2017.

Under current law, drivers may still use their phones on the road to take or answer a call and to use a GPS navigation system.

For the last two years, Ellen's parents, Peter and JoAnn Bengtson, have pushed Iowa lawmakers — alongside law enforcement and traffic safety advocates — to do as 34 other states have done: prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving.

The Iowa Senate last year overwhelmingly passed a bill, Senate File 547, that would ban motorists' handheld use of cellphones behind the wheel, but the Iowa House hit the brakes. It failed to advance during this year's legislative session, which ended last month, after the proposal was combined with legislation that would ban traffic enforcement cameras.

Bills limiting cellphone use by mandating voice-activated or hands-free technology while driving have been introduced in the Iowa Legislature since 2019, but all attempts at passage have been unsuccessful.

"This is not a political issue. This is a safety issue," Peter Bengtson said. "Lawmakers are supposed to be out there advocating for our well-being. To blow this off for several years now, it seems unconscionable to me. ... It was sickening."

Distracted Driving by the Numbers

More people died on Iowa roads last year than in each of the past five years. A total of 378 people died in car crashes in Iowa in 2023, a 12 percent increase from 2022. Excessive speed, distracted driving, impaired driving and not wearing seat belts are some of the motorist behaviors pushing fatalities up.

From 2014 to 2023, 78 people were killed in the state by distracted drivers using a cellphone or other handheld electronic device, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. Another 5,016 were injured during that period.

Casualties caused by distracted drivers using a cellphone over the last 10 years averaged about 3 percent for all traffic deaths and 4 percent for all traffic injuries in Iowa. The Iowa DOT, however, notes distracted driving is underreported and the numbers do not reflect how widespread the issue actually is.

Across the country, distracted driving caused 12,405 fatalities in 2021 — or 28 percent of all traffic deaths that year — at a societal cost of approximately $158 billion, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2022, 3,308 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the administration.

"A lot of people pay through their insurance premiums. Unfortunately, our daughter paid with her life," said JoAnn Bengtson.

'Iowans Want This'

The Bengtsons, state law enforcement officials and the Iowa Bicycle Coalition plan to launch a campaign to press lawmakers to finally pass legislation next year banning the use of a handheld electronic device while driving.

"We're going to double down and keep the public pressure on, because Iowans want this," said Luke Hoffman, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.

The Iowa State Patrol and the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau conducted a survey during the 2023 Iowa State Fair and found that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed supported hands-free device driving legislation.

They spoke to about 1,500 people, 85 percent of whom supported the legislation. And 51 percent admitted to always or sometimes having a mobile device in hand while driving.

Similarly, statewide polling by the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows more than two-thirds of Iowans want legislators to ban motorists from holding cellphones or other electronic devices while they're driving.

Hoffman and the Bengtsons also point to data that shows distracted driving has fallen in other states that have passed the law.

A 2024 report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit representing state highway safety offices, describes how after Alabama, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio implemented hands-free laws, incidents of reported distracted driving fell.

For example, since Ohio enacted a hands-free law in April 2023, researchers estimated that 3,060 crashes, 1,700 injuries and 14 fatalities have been prevented. Economic damages across 8 million drivers had been reduced by more than $121 million.

The report recommended that states adopt strong and clear hands-free laws as part of a broader approach to improve road safety that includes education, enforcement and the use of safe driving technology. Researchers note similar initiatives have succeeded in reducing drunken driving deaths and increasing seat belt usage.

Sgt. Alex Dinkla, public information officer with the Iowa State Patrol, said troopers have seen an increase in crashes and lane departures related to distracted driving.

Law enforcement officials have asked lawmakers in recent years to pass legislation to ban handheld use of mobile devices while driving. The state's existing prohibition on texting while driving is difficult to enforce, Dinkla said, because the exceptions in the law still allow drivers to have a phone in their hand while at the wheel.

"There are loopholes in the law we want to clear up and make it clear and convincing to everyone that what you're supposed to be doing is driving the vehicle, and not on your cellphone or electronic communication device," Dinkla said.

"We don't want to continue delaying this and continue to have fatalities to use those statistics to continue to educate why we need this law," he said. "We want to make sure we are ... taking a proactive approach to make Iowa's road safe. Every single motorist is affected by people texting and driving ... because we all share the same roadways."

Lawmaker: 'The Phone is Not the Enemy'

Rep. Brian Best, a Republican from Glidden who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he is disappointed over the lack of support within the House GOP caucus for a bill to ban handheld phone use while driving.

The Senate bill provided exceptions for the use of an electronic device in a voice-activated or hands-free mode and for first responders while on duty and health care professionals in the course of emergency situations. It also provides exceptions for receiving a weather or emergency alert, reporting an emergency situation, for those operating farm machinery and for certain radio operators and transit drivers.

Despite bipartisan and law enforcement support, a libertarian wing of Republicans in the GOP-controlled House objected to the legislation, saying it infringes on Iowans' individual rights.

Rep. John Wills, a Republican from Spirit Lake, said lawmakers instead should look at other ways to more broadly crack down on activity that diverts attention from driving — not just talking or texting on a phone.

"In my perspective, as long as you're not injuring anyone else, which distracted driving can lead to, the government shouldn't have any business doing anything," Wills said.

He added: "Distracted driving is the culprit, it's not the phone."

"Let's not make the phone the enemy," Wills said. "The phone is not the enemy. It's the person holding the phone, or the McDonald's cheeseburger or doing their makeup. ... Let's cure the disease rather than putting a Band Aid on it" and make distracted driving laws tougher and more enforceable.

Asked what such a measure would look like, Wills suggested legislation allowing police to pull over and cite for distracted driving motorists who cross a centerline. "Let's not punish everyone for the actions of a few," he said.

Wills said he also opposes requiring use of a seat belt — a law in Iowa dating to July 1986. "Even though it's proven to save people's lives, that's an individual's own decision. It's the same principle, too," he said.

'Something We'll Never Get Over'

The Iowa Bicycle Coalition's Hoffman said Wills' framing of the issue presents a "false choice" of "freedom versus saving lives."

"What is the fist responsibility of government? It is to protect the people," Hoffman said. "If we want to be more free and have the fullest lives as Iowans and be the best state, we have to pass this. It's not about horse trading life for liberty."

Wills foresees the legislation coming back before lawmakers next year. "I don't know where it will go," he said. "It depends a little bit on the election."

Best, who is not seeking re-election this fall, advised future champions of the issue to gather data to show how dangerous it is to drive while holding a cellphone.

Sending or reading a text takes a driver's eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that's the equivalent of driving the length of a football field, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Regardless of how Iowa's law is written, JoAnn Bengtson implored Iowa drivers to "do the right thing."

"Put your phone way. Put it in the glove box. Turn your notifications off," she said.

"Justice in this case doesn't bring our daughter back," Peter Bengtson said. "I'd do anything to trade places with her. As a parent, you want to protect your daughter. You don't want to be the one that has to bury your child. It's something we'll never get over."

(c)2024 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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