The number of crashes and deaths involving distracted drivers is swiftly rising in Iowa and the leader of the state’s largest cycling organization is calling for stricter laws on the use of cell phones by motorists.

Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, says they’ve gotten bipartisan, committee-level support of get-tough laws in the past two legislative sessions, but haven’t been able to get a measure to a floor vote in either chamber. “Currently, it’s illegal to text while you’re driving,” Wyatt says. “What we would like to see is a requirement that while you’re operating a motor vehicle, your phone has to be in hands-free or voice-activated mode if you’re going to use it.”

In one case, Wyatt says a woman cyclist was killed by a distracted driver in Charles City on a Sunday afternoon last spring.
“From the court documents, we learned that he was on his cell phone looking at a Facebook notification that popped up about buying a boat,” Wyatt says. “At that point, he hit 28-year-old Ellen Bankston, who was traveling in the same direction on a bicycle. He actually had to turn around to figure out what he had hit. He didn’t even know he hit a person.”

That death, and many others, prompted the launch of a campaign called Drive Safe Iowa. It’s an online petition drive to collect names of supporters demanding an update to Iowa’s distracted driving laws. As for the distracted driver in the Charles City case, Wyatt says he -did- have to go to court.

“Just this spring is when it went to trial and it was dismissed before it went to a jury because they believed that the laws on the books aren’t adequate enough to prevent tragedies like this happening,” Wyatt says. “So we think we need to do more and improve the cell phone and distracted driving laws in the state.”

An Iowa DOT report says in 2001, there was one reported death from distracted driving in Iowa and about 500 crashes. Last year, there were ten deaths statewide caused by distracted driving and nearly 1,100 crashes. “It’s concerning to everybody, because it’s not just bicycles on the road, but it’s pedestrians, it’s other motorists and it’s people that move ag equipment,” Wyatt says. “Everybody in Iowa is at risk from distracted driving. We need to do more to have 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

Radio Iowa