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Editorial: We repeat: Ban texting while driving

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The state official whose job deals with safety on Iowa highways is alarmed. So should we all be.

As we reported Sunday, the number of people killed or injured resulting from the use of a phone or other device while driving – distracted driving – has increased dramatically in Iowa. In 2015, the number of deaths caused by distracted drivers doubled, to 14, from the previous year.

“We have to do something,” said Pat Hoye, chief of the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

These are not deaths caused by bad weather, bad roads or mechanical failures. These deaths were caused by inattention to perhaps the most important job when behind the wheel – paying attention to the road in front of you and to who and what is on it. In 14 tragic cases in 2015, the driver did not accept that responsibility.

Numerous public relations campaigns mention the perils of distracted driving. Celebrities lend their endorsement to distracted driving campaigns.

Yet for some reason, the message isn’t getting through. Numbers of deaths keep climbing, resulting in tragedies that impact the driver, the families involved, friends, neighbors and more.

One such tragedy occurred in North Iowa when 20-year-old Grace Harken was killed while riding her bicycle. The driver, Courtney Lynn Johnson, 24, of Osage, admitted to texting while driving.

She has been charged with two traffic violations and likely will be fined and have her driver’s license suspended on July 15. That, as Iowa law stands now, is the penalty: simple misdemeanors, according to Assistant Mitchell County Attorney Aaron Murphy.

We understand that nothing will bring back Grace Harken. We understand that Courtney Lynn Johnson is remorseful and willing to stand up to whatever penalty is meted out.

We understand, too, that Iowa laws are woefully weak when it comes to discouraging distracted driving. And we have no doubt that those weak laws had a role in the fact that the number of accidents caused by distracted driving rose to 1,100 last year, a whopping 43 percent increase from 2014.

As Hoye says, something has to be done. Cell phones aren’t the only distraction, but they are a major one because, he said, “just about everyone has a cell phone.”

Grace Harken’s dad knows where it must start. So do we, and we have written about it several times.

The remedy lies with the Legislature, the only body that can do something. It must get serious about addressing distracted driving, and specifically it must ban texting while driving.

As it stands now, texting is a primary offense only for drivers age 14-17. It is, however, a secondary offense for adults – meaning they can be cited for texting while driving if they are first pulled over for some other offense.

The Senate has passed a bill making texting while driving a primary offense. The House has refused to act on it.

There is no more time for political gamesmanship with this issue; no more playing with lives.

We join Hoy and others in encouraging legislators to revisit the issue of texting while driving in the upcoming session. Hopefully, they will understand the urgency in making it a primary offense.

Iowa’s leaders must do what they can to prevent the tragedies like the one that lingers with the Harken and Johnson families.


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