It will soon be illegal to read, compose or send electronic text messages while you’re driving on an Iowa road.  The Iowa House and Senate both endorsed the ban on “texting” while driving this afternoon. Governor Culver has said he’ll sign the bill into law. 

The bill is even tougher on teen drivers, as those under the age of 18 will be barred from using any handheld electronic device while they’re behind the wheel, so it would be illegal for a teenager to talk on their cell phone while they’re driving.  Representative Curt Hanson of Fairfield is a retired driver’s ed teacher who was part of the team of House and Senate members who came up with the final version of the bill.

“This is a good bill and it took a great deal of work from both chambers to make it something that all Iowans can be proud of,” Hanson said.

Representative David Tjepkes of Gowrie, a retired state trooper, urged a “yes” vote on the bill. “Move this very worthwhile public safety effort forward,” Tjepkes said. 

The bill would still let people in an ambulance, as well as truckers, read digital dispatches while they’re driving.  Representative Greg Forristall of Macedonia found that troubling. “What would be the difference in the kinetic energy possessed by someone driving, say, a Mini Cooper at 70 miles an hour and someone driving a 96,000 pound truck at 70 miles an hour?” Forristall asked.  “…This really isn’t about safety if you’re going to allow a huge truck weighing 96,000 pounds and allow that operator to be reading a text.” 

Representative Scott Raecker of Urbandale suggested it would be difficult for police to know whether a driver involved in an accident was punching in a phone number to make a call or send a text.  “An unenforceable law and a law that does not show a distinction between the same functional activities is a bad law,” Raecker said.

Hanson, the retired driver’s ed teacher, called the bill a good compromise. “I think it promotes safety in Iowa,” Hanson said. 

And Tjepkes, the retired state trooper, had the final word during House debate. “We have a great opportunity to make a step forward in addressing the issue of distracted drivers,” Tjepkes said.  “We can go on all day long about ‘What if this?’ and ‘What if that?’ but we have to make that first step. We have to move forward.” 

The compromise passed the House on a 66 to 33 vote and later the Senate endorsed it on a 37 to 12 vote.  The bill goes into effect on July 1, 2010 and for the first year, police and state troopers would only issue warnings for disobeying the ban on texting while driving.  After July 1, 2011, a general ticket for illegal texting would be $30, but texters who’re involved in accidents would face much higher fines and would lose their driving privileges for months.