Another push to ban handling a cell phone while driving in Iowa

By O. Kay Henderson, Radio Iowa
There’s another effort in the legislature to make it illegal for motorists to use hand-held smart phones for any purpose while driving.

A law passed in 2017 made texting while driving illegal, but drivers are still allowed to hold their phone to make calls or check navigation apps. Police say it’s hard to tell exactly what a driver with a cell phone in their hand is doing and Sarah Jennings of the Iowa Department of Public Safety says the current law is unenforceable.

“We have to get phones out of the hands of drivers. It’s become a scourge on our roads and it’s a lethal one,” she says.

Twenty-five other states have laws requiring motorists to use hands-free technology while driving.

“When these sorts of laws are passed, they result in an immediate decrease in fatalities,” says Matthew McKinney, a lobbyist for Nationwide Insurance. “We’ve seen an average of a 15% reduction, other states higher than that, in terms of fatalities for states that have enacted this sort of legislation.”

Major Mark Stein of the Iowa State Patrol says last year there were 373 crashes in Iowa where the driver was distracted by an electronic device.

“It’s probably an underreported issue,” Stine says, “because it’s very hard in these investigations to come in there and you ask people: ‘Were you using a phone?’ and they say: ‘No.’”

A House committee and a Senate subcommittee have approved bills to ban handheld cell phone use while driving in Iowa. A third bill that’s cleared another panel would declare school zones and road construction zones as areas where motorists are not allowed to handle a phone while driving. That bill is described as plan B, in case the legislature again balks at passing a statewide ban on driving with a cell phone in hand.