Unclear path for ban on handling electronic devices while driving

DES MOINES — A bill that would ban Iowa motorists from having a phone or electronic device in their hands while driving has cleared a key senate committee, but Speaker Pat Grassley says he hasn’t polled the 64 Republicans in the House about the concept.

“With 24 new members, I just genuinely don’t know what the overall feel is,” Grassley says. “In the past, we haven’t had the level of support needed.”

The bill has been introduced in the legislature for more than a dozen years, but has never become law. The Senate Transportation Committee endorsed it last week. Senator Claire Celsi, a Democrat from Des Moines, used to oppose the law, but she says there are now plenty of inexpensive devices available to let drivers switch their cells to “hands free” mode.

“My brother’s a fireman,” Celsi says. “I can’t tell you the number of times he’s related to me the awful accidents he’s been on the scene of…the horrible things that happen when people decide to take other people’s lives by being on the phone.”

Republican Senator Adrian Dickey of Packwood supports the bill, but he says it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the distracted driving problem.

“We’ve all had examples where we’re driven down the road and met a car where somebody had their dog in their lap as they’re driving…the cheeseburger in hand,” Dickey says.

Under current law, drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using electronic devices while driving, but adult drivers are only barred from sending or reading electronic messages. Iowa law enforcement agencies say it’s difficult to enforce, as drivers claim they’re using the phone for navigation or a phone call.