Consequences of texting while driving more serious

Effective July 1, texting while driving will become a primary offense in Iowa. To put it simply, if a police officer sees you using your phone and doing anything other than talking, he or she can pull you over and issue you a warning or a ticket.

“You can still talk on the phone, and you can still dial a number to call someone, but that’s about it,” said Lyon County Sheriff Stewart Vander Stoep.

The only exceptions include using a phone for GPS purposes and using it to view emergency messages, such as weather alerts. However, playing games, being on Facebook or the internet, and even simply viewing text messages will all become primary offenses starting July 1.

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad passed the legislation earlier this year, with lawmakers hoping the change will reduce the amount of roadway fatalities in the state. Phone usage had previously been a secondary offense, meaning that an officer needed another reason to pull a driver over.

Vander Stoep said he doesn’t anticipate a lot of issues with the new law, however. “This law has been talked about a lot since January and so I think the majority of people know about it already,” he said. “Also, from what I understand from the politicians, about 80 percent of the people in Iowa agree with this new law.”

According to the sheriff, there were 404 vehicle-related deaths in Iowa in 2016, and approximately 63 percent of those fatalities were due to distracted driving. “That is the worst death rate in over a decade on Iowa roads. For so many years, every year we were getting better and better with fewer deaths every year from accidents, but now, in just the last two years, it’s gone up. And 404 deaths in one year is unacceptable. So it was time to do something different, and put some more teeth into the law.”

The law is even stricter for those under 18. “If you have a driving permit or the intermediate license, you cannot use your phone at all, not even to talk on it. That’s all illegal now,” explained Vander Stoep.

He thinks this could be somewhat of a challenge for parents. “All of us parents have done it at one time or another, texting ‘Where areyou?’ and we kind of promote the child to respond while they’re driving. I’ve been guilty of it before. But that’s something that parents will have to get away from.”

The sheriff said the best way to avoid getting pulled over is to pull over on your own. “I’ve noticed more people pulling over to the side of the road to use their phone, and that’s good to see, just as long as they get far enough off the road.”

Vander Stoep felt that something had to be done, especially since there have been more fatalities on Iowa roadways despite the fact vehicles have become safer and safer. “If you’re texting or doing anything like that, you’re not focusing. I don’t think people realize how fast they’re going and how quickly their car can drift to one side or the other just by them looking down for a few seconds. There have been a few accidents in the last couple of years in Lyon County where it was because someone was texting or doing something with their phone, and they drifted into the other lane and there were serious consequences because of it.”

He believes the previous version of the law — in which texting was a secondary offense — was problematic. “If an officer knew the person was texting, that alone wasn’t a good enough reason to stop them. And you don’t even have to be in law enforcement to see all the texting and driving going on out on the road. Now texting and driving will be a primary offense, so there doesn’t have to be any other crime going on for an officer to stop that car.”

Previously, it was rare for a driver to be stopped for texting unless the officer had a second reason to stop the driver. “Before, even just giving them a warning for texting was kind of considered a bad stop, so that’s why most officers didn’t do anything before because they really couldn’t. But now you can stop them and give them a warning at least,” said Vander Stoep.

A person ticketed under the new law will face a fine of $30, but the fine could be as high as $1,000 if the person causes a serious accident due to his/her distracted driving.

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