The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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January 7, 2014

Legislature needs to toughen up distracted driving laws

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.

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With the Clinton County Justice Coordinating Commission and the Clinton County Board of Supervisors discussing proposals to construct a new jail, do you think the time has come for Clinton County to construct such a facility?

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