Iowa sees increases in distracted driving crashes, highway fatalities
By Jay Waagmeester, Iowa Capital Dispatch
Whether it’s a trip to the Field of Dreams, hauling hogs to the Iowa State Fair or heading to Sioux City to kick off RAGBRAI, many Iowans will be on the roads this summer. And those roads are increasingly dangerous because of distracted drivers and a rise in highway fatalities, law enforcement officials say.
According to the Iowa Department of Transportation’s traffic fatality count, there have been 122 traffic fatalities as of May 25. That’s nearly 11% higher than last year at this time, and a 22% increase from the five-year average. The most traffic deaths have occurred during the summer months over the past five years, the DOT reports.
Distracted driving due to cellphones and other devices is a significant factor, according to the Iowa State Patrol.
“We can’t stress enough the dangers, that when people are on those devices how dangerous it is,” Sgt. Alex Dinkla of the Iowa State Patrol said. “It is the same as driving 55 miles an hour and closing your eyes.”
The Iowa Senate passed legislation this session to require drivers to use phones only in hands-free mode while driving, but the measure was not voted on in the House and so did not become law.
The proposed law had been strongly supported by family and friends of Ellen Bengtson, a Charles City resident who was killed in 2020 when she was struck from behind by a pickup truck while bicycling south of Charles City. The driver of the truck admitted to be looking down at a message on his phone when he struck her, but a charge of homicide by vehicle was dismissed by the judge during trial, ruling that “the evidence presented by the state … is insufficient to sustain a conviction” under current Iowa law.
Current law, approved in 2017, allows some handheld device usage while driving. Drivers may not use a phone or handheld device while driving unless they are calling someone or using GPS. Drivers under 18 may not use electronic devices at all while driving. Officers can stop any driver using a portable electronic device while on a traveled portion of a roadway.
While the citation is for use of a handheld device, distracted driving means more than just phones when it comes to safety. It can mean anything taking a driver’s attention away from the road including eating, checking for food between their teeth in the rearview mirror or digging through a messy console.
“The DOT has seen far more lane departures due to crashes than we’ve seen in past years and there’s quite good speculation why people are leaving their lane and having a crash,” Dinkla said.
Distracted driving crashes rise
In 2001, 518 distracted driving crashes in Iowa were reported. Since 2015, the average per year has been 1,111. Also since 2015, there has been an average of nine fatalities from distracted driving per year. In 2001, that number was one.
People are attached to their handheld devices, and many drivers refuse to pull over or wait until their destination to check their phone.
“When you take your hand off that steering wheel and grab that device, you are just making a strong advancement that you are going to end up potentially having a crash, hitting somebody else,” Dinkla said.
Unbelted fatalities rise
Failure to wear a seat belt is a factor in more crashes this year.
About 60% of fatalities this year in Iowa have been unbelted, 5% higher than last year, according to a news release from the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
Seat belt safety is a must when driving year-round, but with the upcoming Click It or Ticket campaign, officers will be looking for seat belt usage with an extra close eye.
The Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau is taking part in the national Click It or Ticket high-visibility enforcement effort. The annual campaign by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is underway until June 4. The campaign is aimed at reducing traffic fatalities.
“During the Memorial Day time frame, we’re going to be having extra law enforcement as well as many other agencies are going to have extra law enforcement on Iowa roadways,” Dinkla said.
Seat belts must be worn in the front seats at all times, with some exceptions for health conditions with a doctor’s note. In the backseat, passengers above the age of 18 are not required to wear a seatbelt by Iowa law, but it is strongly recommended, as passengers in the back seat are still vulnerable in a traffic accident.
“If you choose not to wear that seatbelt in the backseat, and if you are involved in a high speed crash, your body is going to fly through the air,” Dinkla said. “You are going to be a loaded missile flying through that vehicle, possibly injuring or killing somebody else in that vehicle that might have been buckled.”
While unbelted fatalities have risen, fewer drivers are being ticketed for seat belt violations. Seat belt convictions dropped every year from 2011 to 2020, the most recent data available, according to the Iowa DOT. Statewide, there were 27,204 seat belt convictions in Iowa in 2011. In 2020 the number was 9,009.
For Dinkla, decreasing Iowa traffic fatalities is a two-way street.
“We out here at the State Patrol and many other law enforcement agencies go to work each and every day to make our roads safe, we are doing what we can try to do and we can always strive to do better and be better,” Dinkla said. “But we ask the question lots of times: what are you doing? Are you part of the problem or are you a part of the solution?”
Currently, the fine for driving unbelted and using a phone while driving is the same, $135.50 after court fees.
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