Accidents and fatalities involving distracted drivers are soaring in Iowa, and the head of the state’s largest bicycle organization is calling for stricter laws on cell phone use by motorists.
Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, says they’ve had bipartisan committee-level support for tough legislation in the last two legislative sessions, but haven’t been able to get a measure through to a vote in either session. “Currently, it’s illegal to text while driving,” says Wyatt. “What we’d like to see is a requirement that when you’re operating a motor vehicle, your phone must be in hands-free or voice-activated mode if you want to use it.”
In one case, Wyatt said, a female cyclist was killed by a distracted driver on a Sunday afternoon in Charles City last spring.
“We learned from the court documents that he looked at a Facebook notification that popped up on his phone about buying a boat,” says Wyatt. “It was at this point that he met 28-year-old Ellen Bankston, who was riding a bicycle in the same direction. He actually had to turn around to figure out what he’d hit. He didn’t even know he hit a person.”
This death and many others prompted the launch of a campaign called Drive Safe Iowa. This is an online petition to collect names of supporters calling for an update to Iowa’s distracted driving laws. As for the distracted driver in the Charles City case, Wyatt says he had to go to court.
“Just this spring it went to court and it was dismissed before a jury because they felt the laws in the books weren’t enough to prevent tragedies like this,” says Wyatt. “So we think we need to do more and improve cell phone and distracted driving laws in the state.”
An Iowa DOT report states that in 2001 there was one reported fatality from distracted driving in Iowa and approximately 500 accidents. Last year there were 10 fatalities from distracted driving and nearly 1,100 accidents nationwide. “It affects everyone, because there are not only bicycles on the road, but also pedestrians, other motorists and people moving farm equipment,” says Wyatt. “Everyone in Iowa is at risk from distracted driving. We must do more to take responsibility and hopefully prevent tragedies like this.”
So far, 47 states have banned texting while driving and 16 states have hands-free laws. You can sign the petition online at: www.drivesafeiowa.org