Iowa safety officials want drivers to focus on the road, so they’re focusing on putting some teeth into laws regarding distracted driving. We think they’re on the right road.

All sorts of things qualify as distracted driving, of course: Putting on makeup, reaching for food or drink, tuning the radio, talking on the cellphone.

But the chief problem state officials have identified is texting, and Iowa Department of Public Safety officials say they plan to push for ways to strengthen enforcement of current state laws.

They will ask legislators in the coming session to add a distracted-driving subsection to existing law dealing with failure to maintain control of a vehicle, a moving violation with the fine and costs amounting to about $200.

You may wonder why this is necessary since Iowa already bans texting for all drivers and bars teenagers operating under restricted or intermediate licenses, as well as instructional or school permits, from using cellphones or electronic devices while driving. That violation is a simple misdemeanor carrying a $30 fine, although it can go higher if property damage, injury or death are involved.

But current law only is enforceable as a secondary action when an officer stops or detains a driver for a suspected violation of another motor vehicle law.

Sgt. Scott Bright, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said the legislative proposal to expand the statute regarding failure to control would make distracted driving a primary offense — meaning an officer could fine the driver for that offense without any other violation occurring.

Officers also would have more discretion when such activity appears to be causing unsafe driving such as swerving.

That’s not always the case now. Currently, officials say, in the event of a crash it’s hard for the investigating officer to “define and prove” the driver was distracted. Making distracted driving a primary violation would make such situations easier for law enforcement to address.

There’s no question that texting is a culprit in highway safety. Data increasingly points to distracted driving, and particularly texting, as dangerous.

Nationally, 3,328 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2012, according to federal officials. Iowa — with more wide-open spaces and much less traffic than more populous areas — still has recorded 81 deaths associated with inattentive or distracted driving from 2003 to 2013, including six deaths in the current year. Nearly four out of 10 accidents and 27 deaths in the crash data involved the use of a phone or other device.

With that hard evidence on the books, we’d like to think that doing anything to reduce fatalities and injuries would be prudent on the Legislature’s part. But that may not be the case.

Gov. Terry Branstad says no decision on the issue has been made by him and his staff regarding the administration’s legislative proposals.

Chairmen of the House and Senate Transportation committees say while distracted driving is on their 2014 radar, it’s unclear whether a consensus will develop on how to address the problem legislatively. We believe them, though we can’t imagine why.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, makes an interesting point, saying he’s a “firm believer that as the technology increases, technology can solve the problem.”

He said an application downloaded on his 16-year-old daughter’s cellphone prevents the use of the device while she’s driving.

Interesting. But we still believe strengthening the law by making distracted driving a primary offense is a better tool.

Patrick Hoye, a former Iowa State Patrol chief and now chief of the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, says it’s working elsewhere.

“States that are getting a handle on distracted driving are seeing their fatalities come down,” Hoye said.

“I think there is a direct correlation to states that are addressing distracted driving and reduction of fatalities. There is a strong correlation there.”

And we think a strong reason for the Legislature to act on the issue in the coming session.

Public safety officials know best. Lawmakers should heed their advice.

Mason City Globe Gazette, Jan. 5

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