Hand-held phone ban for drivers considered

DES MOINES — Hand-held use of mobile phones while driving would be illegal under a proposal making its way through the Iowa Capitol.

A three-member Iowa Senate panel on Thursday approved the legislation, which builds on the 2017 law that made texting while driving an offense for which police could stop drivers.

“I think our efforts previously have failed and I think it’s time for stronger measures,” said Iowa Sen. Tim Kapucian, a Republican from Keystone who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee. “I think hands-free is probably the only way we’re going to solve this issue (of distracted driving), or at least pay more attention to it.”

There are 16 states that ban hand-held mobile phone use while driving.

The number of traffic crashes by distracted drivers dropped slightly in 2017, according to state transportation department data.

Distracted driver crashes involving phone or device use were down 2 percent, and deaths fell from 13 in 2016 to 10 in 2017.

“The intent of the Legislature (in 2017) was to send a signal,” said Sen. Zach Whiting, a Republican from Spirit Lake. “Maybe that signal was not received or heard strongly enough.”

Law enforcement officials have been calling for a hands-free law. They say they appreciate the primary offense measure, but that it is still difficult to enforce the law because it permits drivers to use their hands to operate their phones for things other than texting.

“We are strongly for (the hands-free law) and have been for years,” Susan Daemen, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association, said at Thursday’s subcommittee meeting. “We believe this will be more enforceable if we go to a hands-free (law).”

Rep. Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Marion who chairs the Iowa House transportation committee, said she is watching to see what happens to the Senate bill before taking any action in her chamber.

Kapucian said he does not yet know how the full Senate feels about the proposal. He noted opposition usually comes from legislators who are concerned that the law infringes on civil liberties.

“Some of them worry about the freedoms. And I agree that it’s a freedom we will infringe upon,” Kapucian said. “But like I said (in the subcommittee meeting), you and I all have our freedoms. But when we infringe on somebody else’s freedoms, that’s where it stops. And I think we’ve been at that point. ... It’s about safety.”