cell phone hands free

Reprinted from the Quad City Times July 7.

We’ve all seen it.

The car in front of you drifts a bit, edging closer to your lane.

Or, at a stoplight, you look over and the driver, head bent, is studying ... well, something.

On occasion, we even see the startling sight of somebody driving down the road with the steering wheel in one hand and a cellphone, at eye level, in the other.

Beware, if you try this in Illinois the consequences will be costly.

On July 1, Illinois became a “hands-free state,” meaning that it is illegal to do any of the things we do on our phones — talk, text, stream video, take photos, etc., while driving.

Three violations within a 12-month period will mean a suspended license.

It still is legal to use a hands-free device.

Twenty states have passed laws banning hand-held cellphone use. Minnesota’s ban will kick in on Aug. 1.

Sadly, Iowa is not among the 20. It is like most of the states surrounding the Quad-Cities. (Illinois and Minnesota are the exceptions.) There was a bill in the Legislature this session proposing to ban cellphone use but it didn’t make much progress.

We have often complained that the Iowa Legislature moves too slowly on a variety of fronts. It is our cautious nature. This is one of those areas, but it’s one where the consequences are severe. In fact, even the laws that have been passed to limit distracted driving don’t seem to be enforced the way they should.

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The Legislature passed a law two years ago making texting while driving a primary offense, meaning it can be the sole reason for authorities to stop a driver.

In 2018, the Iowa State Patrol issued more than 1,000 citations for texting and driving, and the agency is on track to do about that many this year. However, the Des Moines Register reported last year the state patrol accounted for two-thirds of the citations written across Iowa. Few of the state’s other 400 law enforcement agencies issued citations, according to the newspaper.

Distracted driving is a big problem in this country. According to the federal government, there were nearly 3,000 people killed in 2017 in crashes involving distractions, 9% of all crash-related fatalities.

Not all of those involved cellphones, of course. (People who fiddle with the radio, eat or get distracted by others in the car have long been a problem.) However, 434 people died on the nation’s roads in 2017 in crashes that involved cellphone related activities as a distraction, according to the federal government.

In Iowa there were nine fatalities last year attributed to drivers being distracted by a cellphone or some other device, according to state data. We believe that number is likely low. Iowa authorities tell us that such figures are based on what can be definitively proven, something that’s not very easy.

We’re glad that Illinois has toughened its law. The first offense, instead of being a warning, will cost $75, with the second violation costing $100 and a third, $125. These fines aren’t even as steep as they will be in Mainnesota.

We hope that Iowa lawmakers will be more aggressive on this issue in the next session. It took seven years for the state to make texting a primary offense. That was way too long.

Officials also tell us there are loopholes in the law, such as the ability to enter information into a phone’s mapping app while driving. That may be legal, but it’s hardly safe.

More than 41 million Americans were taking to the road for a getaway for the July 4th holiday, which includes the weekend. That’s a 4% increase over last year.

This seems like a good time to remind people to slow down and drop the phone. We hope you get to your destination safely.

Perhaps next January, Iowa lawmakers will make it easier to do so.

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