The Iowa Legislature has approved a compromise package that puts new limits on sending or reading text messages while driving, including tough restrictions on young drivers.
Lawmakers have argued about the issue for most of the session. A House-Senate conference committee hammered out a compromise version that was approved by legislators Tuesday, first by the House and then by the Senate.
The bill now goes to Gov. Chet Culver, who has called for passage of such a measure but hasn’t commented on this specific plan.
“I think we have a good consensus,” said Rep. David Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, a retired Iowa State Patrol trooper. “It is one of the most serious distractions that drivers face on the highway.”
The measure restricts drivers under 18 from using a cell phone or electronic device while driving, including talking on a cell phone. It bans drivers older than 18 from reading or writing text messages or e-mails while driving.
Critics said the measure would be nearly impossible to enforce and would puts a new load on police officers.
“How is law enforcement going to know?” asked Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale. “It’s an unenforceable law.”
Rep. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, a retired driver education teacher, defended the measure.
“The compromise we reached today will protect our most vulnerable drivers and keep our roadways safe,” said Hanson. “I’ve taught Iowans about responsibility on the roadways for over 30 years and I know this commonsense bill will save lives.”
The House approved the effort on a 66-33 vote, sending it to the Senate, where it won quick approval, 37-12.
Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, said the restriction on young drivers was among the most important.
“When you are learning to drive, that is what we want you to be doing, learning to drive,” said Danielson. “Texting while driving is the worst distracted behavior you can do.”
Violators could be charged with a simple misdemeanor and face a $30 fine, but that would be delayed for a year while state transportation officials launch a public awareness campaign to warn drivers of the new restrictions.
That same step was taken when the Legislature required that seat belts be worn.
The measure also bans police from stopping a motorist only because of suspicion the person was texting. Local governments also are banned from enacting their own ordinances on texting.
Lawmakers carved out some exceptions, including one for truckers and for those operating emergency vehicles. While some trucking companies ban drivers from using cell phones, many rigs carry on-board computers that are used to dispatch and direct drivers.
Critics said it makes little sense to ban those driving a tiny car from texting, while allowing the driver of a 96,000-pound truck to scan a computer.
Tjepkes conceded the final measure was a compromise that will likely face tinkering down the road, but he said it’s a start.
The measure includes tougher penalties for drivers in cases where texting is shown to have caused an accident. There would be a fine of up to $500 in cases where it causes an accident with serious injuries, and $1,000 when a death occurs.
Violation of the texting measure would not count toward offenses that can result in a license suspension.
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