Bengtsons help lobby for stricter cellphone restrictions while driving, after daughter’s death
By Bob Steenson, [email protected]
A group of North Iowa bicycling enthusiasts met at the Iowa Capitol last week for a coordinated lobbying event sponsored by the Iowa Bicycling Coalition.
The group met with their elected officials to encourage support of Senate File 60 and its companion bill in the Iowa House, which would address distracted drivers on Iowa’s highways. The bill passed unanimously out of its assigned subcommittee this week.
Peter and Joann Bengtson came from their home state of Washington to Des Moines to tell lawmakers the story of their daughter, Ellen, who was killed by a distracted driver.
Ellen Bengtson of Charles City was killed in August 2020 while bicycling south of Charles City, when her bicycle was struck by a pickup truck being driven by a man who said he looked down at his phone to read a message that appeared on its screen. A charge of homicide by vehicle was filed against Colby William Elliot of Clarksville.
Elliot told authorities that his cellphone was face down on the console of his Ford F150 pickup truck and he heard it buzz, signifying a message had been received. He picked up the phone and read a Facebook message notice that was displayed on the screen, and while he was looking at the phone his truck struck something.
During the beginning of his trial in April 2022, the Floyd County Attorney’s Office presented videotape footage from a county deputy’s bodycam where Elliot – who had called 911 and remained with Bengtson while emergency services arrived – sobbed and repeatedly said the accident was his fault, he was sorry, he was stupid, that he had been looking at his phone and didn’t see Bengtson, and that he thought he would be going to jail.
After the prosecution had presented its case, District Court Judge DeDra Schroeder issued a directed verdict of acquittal, dismissing the charge. She ruled the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence that the man was acting in a way that Iowa law said was reckless.
Elliot’s attorney at the trial, Robert Rehkemper of West Des Moines, had argued that Iowa law allows people to use their phones while driving, including to make phone calls, access GPS programming, or to receive weather alerts or Amber Alerts.
“Merely viewing the notification of the message is not sufficient to rise to the level of the conduct statutorily designated as recklessness. If this were so, a driver of a motor vehicle would be playing ‘notification roulette’ anytime they looked at a phone while driving,” Rehkemper had written in a filing before the trial started.
The proposed new legislation would prohibit the use of most portable electronic devices unless they can be operated without hands, aside from a single touch of a device to activate them.
Talking about Ellen, Peter Bengtson told a transportation subcommittee hearing last week, “We’re here to give her a voice because she can’t be here because the driver killed her and literally got away with murder. There was no penalties. He did not go through the trial process. We do support this bill for obvious reasons.”
Joann Bengtson said nothing they could do would bring Ellen back, “but we don’t want other families to go through what we’re going through.”
Others recounted similar stories during the subcommittee hearing, including Sen. Claire Celsi, a West Des Moines Democrat who was among the three subcommittee members to recommend the bill for passage.
Celsi said she “will never forget seeing a 12-year-old little boy in a casket because of careless use of a handheld device in a vehicle.”
Studies have shown that the distractions posed by such devices can have a profound impact on driving and can even be less safe than driving while intoxicated, but similar bills failed to get enough support for passage in the Iowa Legislature last year.
Drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely to be in a collision that causes injuries than those who are not using the devices, according to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
No one spoke against the Senate bill at the hearing, although Celsi said she might propose an amendment to strike from it an exception for people “operating an implement of husbandry,” which she assumed references farmers.
“It seems a little silly to require cars and trucks to do it and not folks that are out there with their huge, giant equipment that drives 5 miles per hour on the road when everyone else is going 60,” she said. “I personally have had family members that were nearly killed in that situation.”
The bill also adds exemptions for people who are reporting an emergency, using a two-way radio, operating a vehicle for public transportation, and certain utility and transportation workers.
On-duty public safety officials and heath care workers responding to emergencies were already exempted from the current law, along with people who receive emergency, traffic and weather alerts. The Senate bill eliminates the exception for traffic alerts.
“Watching younger people try to acclimate to technology and driving sometimes is kind of scary, and I think this heads us in the right direction,” said Sen. Mike Klimesh, a Spillville Republican and member of the subcommittee.
— Iowa Capital Dispatch added to this story.