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Law officers working to slow Iowa traffic deaths

Law officers working to slow Iowa traffic deaths

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DES MOINES — Iowa’s COVID-19 pandemic reduced traffic volumes but not bad-driving habits, with cases of excessive speeding and drunken and distracted driving on the uptick along with traffic deaths — all trends concerning Iowa’s law enforcement and transportation agencies.

“Law enforcement reported some of the state’s worst-driving habits in decades,” said Patrick Hoye, chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau and chair of the recently formed Iowa Traffic Fatality Task Force, who joined other task force members at a Statehouse news conference Tuesday to urge Iowans to practice safe driving skills.

So far this year, at least 119 people have died in traffic crashes on Iowa highways — a total up over 25 percent from the death toll of 95 for the same period one year ago, task force officials reported. Last month’s toll of 41 traffic deaths was the highest for May in nine years, and nearly 36 percent of fatal traffic crashes in 2020 involved positive tests for alcohol or drugs, with impaired driving deaths up 9 percent from the previous year.

For Greg Franck, the statistics hit home after his son, Wade, was killed nearly six years ago when a drunken driver hit him and three other bikers on a Des Moines street.

“Our 41-year-old son did not have to die,” Franck told a news conference on the Capitol steps that also featured the wreckage of two law enforcement vehicles involved in crashes. “Iowans need to understand the consequences of bad choices before they get behind the wheel,” he said.

Law officers wrote about 1,500 citations for drivers exceeding 100 mph on Iowa highways since the pandemic began influencing Iowans’ driving behaviors, they said. Law enforcement data indicated that citations for traveling more than 25 mph over the speed limit are up 36 percent over the five-year average, Hoye said, with 1,434 drivers cited in 2020 and 1,326 already cited in 2021.

“Slow down, put the phone down and buckle up,” said Col. Nathan Fulk, chief of the Iowa State Patrol, who called on Iowans to help meet a task force goal of holding traffic fatalities below 300 this year for the first time since 1925. Most traffic fatalities are preventable, he emphasized.

Task force members said law officers are planning an enforcement crackdown through Saturday to heighten driver awareness of Iowa laws requiring use of seat belts, banning use of cellphones to read, write or send text messages while driving, discouraging drinking alcohol while operating a motor vehicle, obeying speed limits and observing safety measures when conditions warrant them.

“Safety is more than just a word,” said Scott Marler, director of the state Department of Transportation — an agency that has determined the comprehensive cost of fatal crashes on Iowa’s streets and highways exceeds $3.5 billion annually, with fatal crashes claiming nearly 3,500 lives over the past decade. “It takes all of us to change driving behavior. You hold the power in your own hands,” he added.

The Iowa DOT director said his agency sees a lot of distractions but it is difficult to capture in crash data. In 2019, Marler said, distracted driving was identified as a contributing circumstance in nearly 1,100 crashes with distracted drivers more likely to be involved in rear-end collisions, changing lanes erratically or other crash-inducing behaviors that can be extremely dangerous.

Hoye said law enforcement agencies, safety groups and others worked unsuccessfully to get the Iowa Legislature to adopt a measure that would ban the use of hand-held devices while driving in Iowa, but he was “very optimistic” about a renewed effort by the newly formed traffic fatality reduction task force in the next session.

Sen. Waylon Brown, R-Osage, chairman of the Iowa Senate Transportation Committee, said Tuesday he shared that optimism and said he is working with Iowa DOT officials to build a coalition to get something done in 2022. “I don’t have a good reason as to why it stalled,” he said, but acknowledged Iowa House Republicans had concerns.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said his majority House GOP caucus members expressed concerns over the enforcement and personal freedom aspects of banning Iowa drivers from using hand-held devices.

“It gets down to the personal choice of the individual. I understand there are a lot of people that can disagree whether that really is the right position to take on that. I think it is a very touchy issue,” Grassley said. “I don’t know what will really change between now and next session because I think some of the people who are opposed to the bill are fundamentally opposed to it from the personal freedom and choice aspect of it.”

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