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Iowa lawmakers continue effort to ban hand-held phone use while driving

a woman using a cell phone while driving
Marco Verch
An Iowa Senate panel advanced a bill Monday that would only allow hands-free use of cell phones while driving.

An Iowa Senate panel advanced a bill Monday that would only allow hands-free use of cell phones while driving, as lawmakers continue a years-long effort to strengthen the state’s distracted driving laws andimprove safety on Iowa’s roads.

According to the Iowa State Patrol, distracted driving caused one in five car crashes in the state in 2021.

Larry Loss of Clive said he was biking last spring when a driver who was looking at their phone cut him off, sending him crashing into a concrete barrier.

“I spent 17 days in the hospital. Had two surgeries. I was off work for two months,” Loss said. “By the way, the driver never stopped. I am in support of this bill.”

Law enforcement officials have been telling lawmakers for years that the state’s current ban on viewing and sending messages while driving is very difficult to enforce.

Iowa State Trooper Wade Major said when a driver is pulled over on suspicion of texting and questioned about their phone use, they often say they’re using a GPS app to avoid getting a ticket.

“We have no rights to take their phone at this point in time,” Major said. “We know what they’re doing. We can tell what they’re doing. So at the end of the day…we end up penalizing those who are being honest with us up front.”

The bill advanced by a Senate panel would ban all cell phone use while driving except for the one touch it takes to answer or end a phone call. All other phone use would have to be hands-free, with some exceptions for certain professions and vehicles.

The bill would make phone use while driving a moving violation and increase the fine from $45 to $100. Fines would be $500 for violations causing serious injury and $1,000 for violations causing death, and the driver’s license could also be suspended in those cases.

Peter Bengtson said the bill will help prevent deaths. His daughter was killed near Charles City by a distracted driver in 2020, and he said the driver “got away with murder.”

“The state patrol report indicated he was looking at his phone for over 9-and-a-half seconds,” Bengtson said. “And he never saw what he hit and had to turn around and find her body in a ditch. This is a horrible experience. We don’t want anyone else to go through this.”

The Iowa Department of Public Safety, the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, labor unions, and groups representing car companies, insurance companies, and local governments support the bill. No groups registered in opposition.

Variations of this bill have been proposed year after year.

Bill sponsor Sen. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, said he thinks the bill could have more momentum this year.

“We’ve always had the votes,” he said. “I’ve gone around, talked to everybody, both chambers and everything. It always seems like sometimes here we have, like, one person who doesn’t like it, and somehow they slow it down.”

Lofgren said the years of work on the bill have helped iron out issues stakeholders had with it.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said she would offer an amendment to remove the exception for people driving tractors and other farm equipment.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter