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Branstad signs road safety bills

Legislators, lobbyists, law officers and public safety advocates watch Gov. Terry Branstad sign two bills into law Monday aimed at making Iowa’s roads safer. The signing ceremony for Senate File 234 and Senate File 444 was held at the Oran Pape Building, where the Iowa Department of Public Safety is housed in Des Moines.

DES MOINES | Gov. Terry Branstad signed bills into law Monday that ban texting while driving and allow tougher steps for curtailing drunken and drugged driving in Iowa.

The governor said he was disappointed the Legislature did not adopt an outright ban on using hand-held devices while driving. But Branstad said action to make texting while driving a primary offense and establishing the option of requiring drivers arrested for or convicted of impaired driving to participate in twice-daily sobriety monitoring — and requiring them to install ignition interlocks — will change driving behaviors.

“Together these two bills, which passed with strong bipartisan support, will make an impact on improving highway safety in our state,” Branstad said in signing Senate File 234 and Senate File 444 with law officers, public safety advocates and legislators on hand.

Drivers still will be able to use hand-held devices to make phone calls or check GPS directions. But beginning July 1, they can be pulled over by police and face a $30 fine for using them to write, send or view an electronic message.

“We truly are making a difference and I think when people begin to realize how distracted they are when they’re driving, when they’re using their electronic devices, hands-free is going to be a much easier argument to make in the future,” said Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan.

During the legislative debate, proponents called it a bad idea to take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel while driving, but applauded the incremental progress after Iowa’s traffic deaths rose from a five-year low of 317 in 2013 to 403 in 2016.

“This is a vast improvement over what we’ve got and I think it will serve the purpose,” Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, the bill’s House manager, said after Monday’s ceremony.

Iowa currently is one of five states that classify texting while driving as a secondary offense for adults, meaning police are not allowed to pull over a driver unless they suspect another violation also has been committed. Iowa has a texting ban for young drivers. SF 234 eliminate the provision that prohibits an officer from stopping a driver solely for texting.

“I’m confident that this bill will help send a message to drivers in our state: eyes on the road driving,” said Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who said she would keep pushing for a ban on hand-held devices while driving.

The other law, SF 444, allows local jurisdictions to require drivers arrested for or convicted of impaired driving to undergo twice-daily sobriety monitoring in a program sometimes called 24-7.

The program is modeled after initiatives in such states as South Dakota, where Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew visited to see it in action in 2013. Drew also asked legislators to pass the 24-7 sobriety program the last few years.

"I'm pleased because we have worked on this for four years. I think as a society we want to do all we can about the horrible issues of impaired driving," Drew said.

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Under the law, local authorities could decide to place an offender in the program as a condition of bond, pretrial release, probation, parole or a temporary restricted license. The offender would be allowed to function in a job free from incarceration if he or she abstains from using alcohol or drugs for the sanction’s term.

An offender in the program also would be required to have an ignition interlock, which prevents a car from being started if the driver’s breath reveals he or she has been drinking.

Drew said the twice-daily testing is a constant reminder to people that they must take sobriety seriously.

"The 24/7 helps the courts and criminal justice system work on a ongoing societal problem impaired driving with alcohol or drugs. This gives a great option for oversight while someone remains on bond or post-trial conviction," Drew said.

A separate provision provides that texting while driving would be evidence of reckless driving in the event of a fatal crash. A driver who struck and killed someone would commit a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of no more than $10,000.

Branstad said the sobriety program holds “great promise,” given that a third of impaired driving fatalities are caused by repeat drunken driving offenders.

“This program is designed to address those Iowans who have repeatedly made the terrible decision to drive while intoxicated. We like this program not only because it has proven results in South Dakota, but also because it puts the burden of the cost on the offender not on the taxpayer,” he said.

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Journal reporter Bret Hayworth contributed to this report.


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