Iowa distracted driving laws may overlook a leading form of distraction

Lawmakers may soon expand Iowa’s distracted driving laws, but the proposed changes do not address the widespread threat of cognitive distraction.

Today distracted driving is widely recognized as a significant safety threat. In Iowa, drivers are banned from texting, but there are countless other distractions that may endanger innocent motorists. To address this issue, Iowa lawmakers are currently considering expanding the state's distracted driving laws. However, the proposed changes may fail to eliminate one of the most dangerous distractions, leaving Des Moines drivers at risk for motor vehicle crashes.

Comprehensive ban proposed

The Gazette reports that the state House and Senate are weighing distinct distracted driving bills. The House bill would ban drivers from making calls, using social media and otherwise communicating via handheld electronic devices. The Senate bill would permit calls while banning other forms of electronic communication. Under both bills, texting would become a primary offense. While the House version is still under consideration, the Senate version recently passed by a wide margin.

These changes could offer significant safety benefits. If texting were a primary offense, officers could pull over motorists just for texting. Additionally, if other forms of handheld cellphone use were banned, authorities could more easily enforce the existing texting ban. At present, confirming that a driver is texting, rather than using a cellphone for legal purposes, may prove difficult.

Despite these benefits, the proposed legal changes may still leave room for dangerous distracted driving behaviors. Research indicates that the hands-free devices permitted under both bills can be just as distracting as handheld devices.

An unaddressed threat

The National Safety Council explains that hands-free devices are not inherently safer or less distracting than hands-free devices. Over 30 studies have shown that drivers experience similar impairments when using either type of device. This happens because talking on a hands-free phone requires the brain to divert needed attention from driving. Studies have documented the following performance issues when drivers use hands-free or handheld cellphones:

  • Failure to take in important environmental cues. Experts estimate that drivers who are using any type of cellphone overlook half of the immediate driving environment.
  • Decreased ability to handle navigation, visual information and spatial processing. The parts of the brain that oversee these tasks show reduced activity when people listen to language.
  • Diminished ability to process information and react quickly. In one experiment, legally drunk drivers had faster reaction times than mentally distracted drivers.

Sometimes, cognitive distraction may result in minor issues, such as lane excursions or delayed reactions to speed limit changes. However, this form of distraction can also lead to rear-end collisions, crashes involving other road users and other serious motor vehicle accidents.

Legal remedies

These findings suggest that, even if Iowa passes stricter laws, drivers may face a high risk of distraction-related accidents. Fortunately, legal remedies may be available. A person's decision to engage in a legal distraction may still represent negligence if it causes harm to another person.

People who have been hurt because of a distracted driver's recklessness should think about meeting with an attorney. An attorney may be able to offer advice on a victim's legal options based on the specific accident circumstances.

Keywords: distracted, driving, texting, accident, injury