Credit: Photo illustration by Danielle Wilde/IowaWatch

Iowa’s law banning texting while driving is failing to reduce road crashes, and officers seldom enforce it because of legal restrictions, an IowaWatch investigation shows.

Although texting-related crashes have been on the rise in recent years, Iowa convicted an average of only 2.5 drivers per county for texting last year, the investigation revealed.

Enforcing Iowa’s law banning texting while driving is difficult because of legal restrictions, an IowaWatch investigation shows.
Enforcing Iowa’s law banning texting while driving is difficult because of legal restrictions, an IowaWatch investigation shows. Credit: Photo illustration by Danielle Wilde/IowaWatch

Crash history reports from the Iowa Department of Transportation show that since the Iowa Legislature enacted it in July 2011, the law has done nothing to decrease cell-phone related crashes. Instead, the number of crashes has increased steadily.

The problem is worse than the statistics show because distracted driving often is not reported properly when a crash occurs.

In this investigation, IowaWatch examined state laws, traffic reports, studies and crash data for Iowa and other states and interviewed visual attention specialists, traffic safety officials, experts, statisticians, legislators and law enforcement officers.

“Texting while driving has become ubiquitous,” said Mark Lowe, director of the Iowa DOT’s Motor Vehicle Division.

Data for 2013 remain preliminary, but already show the highest number of phone-related crashes since 2009.

While other states have passed strict bans on all handheld phone use, Iowa legislators have debated but failed to pass a law that would make texting behind the wheel a primary offense, for which an officer needs no other reason to pull you over.

Iowa’s law inhibits enforcement by classifying the act as a secondary offense. This means law enforcement officers cannot execute a traffic stop unless the driver has committed some other violation, even if they spot a driver texting.

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa
Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa

“It’s like dipping your toe in the water instead of throwing everybody in the pool,” state Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, said. Bowman, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, voted for the bill to increase texting enforcement and said he was disappointed when the House didn’t take it up.

Almost all states have a law banning texting while driving, but only four do not enforce them as a primary offense: Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and Florida.

Iowa law prohibits the use of an electronic communication device to send, receive or read a text message or email while driving. The charge is a simple misdemeanor that comes with a fine of $30. The law does not apply to operating a GPS or entering a telephone number, which distraction specialists say carry the same increased risk.

Distracted or inattentive driving involving a cell phone has accounted for more than 7,000 crashes statewide in the past decade. In that time, it has taken the lives of 24 Iowans.

Allison Smith, a 17-year-old Stacyville, Iowa, student, became one of those numbers in November 2011 on her way home from school when her car plowed beneath a stopped school bus as she was texting on a phone.

Allison Smith, killed in November 2011 car crash
Allison Smith, killed in November 2011 car crash Credit: Photo courtesy of Paul and Lesa Smith

She probably never saw the bus. Phone records and video from the school bus show Allison texting just before impact on Highway 218 just east of St. Ansgar, Iowa. Crash investigators with the Iowa State Patrol later determined from airbag data that no braking happened. The driver and 21 children on the school bus escaped without injury.

“She always had a smile on her face,” said Allison’s mother, Lesa Smith, who works as a cook at an assisted living facility. Lesa’s husband, Paul, is a farmer on the family’s farm in Stacyville.

Your typical high school girl, as Lesa Smith describes her, Allison was involved in school sports like volleyball and basketball. She kept stats for St. Ansgar Community High School’s football team. She loved horses – especially her own, Penny – and was close with her older brother, Cole. Friends called her Ally.


The State Patrol has 358 officers, yet last year only 252 texting tickets were issued statewide. Sgt. Scott Bright, spokesperson with the Patrol, points to these numbers to demonstrate the enforcement struggle on Iowa’s roadways.

Bright, a former trooper, has seen it all when it comes to distracted driving – women applying makeup, men shaving, people eating a bowl of cereal on the way to work, even drivers going down an interstate highway with a laptop computer on their lap working. But it seems he sees nothing more frequently than texting and driving.

During Bright’s 15- to 20-minute drive to work each day to the Iowa State Patrol Headquarters in Des Moines, he sees at least one or two people texting. Typical violations that lead to being pulled over and charged with texting and driving are:

  • Erratic driving;
  • Weaving in the lane;
  • Dropping off on to the shoulder;
  • Varying speed;
  • Tailgating.

“If someone’s texting, it won’t take long before they’re weaving and in and out of their lanes,” said Trooper Bob Conrad with the Patrol’s division in Cedar Rapids, “and that is the biggest indicator.”

Law enforcement officers also have issued texting tickets if the person texting is spotted not wearing a seat belt or driving with expired registration plates. Bright recalled watching a man recently texting next to him at a red light.

“You could see him hit the send button; then he would wait. I could actually see the light-up of the phone where the next message would come in and then he’d respond to that message,” Bright said.

Under Iowa law, Bright could do nothing about it. That is, until the driver took off, and Bright saw the vehicle’s taillight was burned out.

In this case, the man lied about having texted. He claimed to have just been dialing a phone number – a legal behavior. When Bright asked why it took him two minutes to dial that phone number, the man admitted he was texting.

Lesa Smith, Allison’s mother, sees this all the time. “It is frustrating to see people doing that and we know what could happen,” she said.

Officers typically see the illegal phone use. But in a case where the officer doesn’t directly witness it, and drivers stick to the claim that they weren’t texting, it becomes a question of how to prove it.

When there is only suspicion of texting, some officers ask to see the driver’s phone. Conrad, the state trooper from Cedar Rapids, said he has done that on occasion.

Technically, the driver’s right to refuse to hand over the phone is protected under the Fourth Amendment – which prohibits search and seizure without a warrant showing probable cause. But Conrad said drivers usually obey automatically.

“If the last text was a minute ago, and it took me 45 seconds to stop and walk up to the car, I pretty much know what they were doing,” Conrad said.

Citations also can be issued after the fact if officers take the time to legally obtain driver phone records that would indicate communication of half-completed text messages before the collision.

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Adding to the problem is an inadequate system for collecting data on distraction-related motor crashes.

Traffic safety specialists point to the high number of crashes related to lane departures as an indicator that distracted driving is under-reported. Lane departures – non-intentional drifting or weaving – account for 65 percent of all crashes, while phone-related distraction makes up less than 1 percent, according to crash history reports.

These accuracy shortcomings become a problem when it comes to gauging the success of distracted driving laws. Much of this responsibility lies with the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau – a division of the Iowa Department of Public Safety that works to identify and remedy traffic safety problems.

Jennifer Parsons, distracted driving coordinator with the Bureau, explains this difficulty by saying: “it is problematic since we don’t know how to best address the issue if we don’t have statistics to guide us.”

Traffic safety specialists say accurately determining if distraction caused a crash can be difficult for crash investigators. Accurate crash report forms depend on the driver being alive and willing to admit to using a phone.

Trooper Conrad said he believes the number of phone-related crashes reported each year to be extremely low. One reason: Conrad said an officer cannot lie about what the driver admits to doing. “You have to tell the truth and if someone lies to me, I have to basically prove it wrong,” he said.

Officers rarely seek a warrant for phone records to prove drivers wrong.

Conrad said officers won’t even go through the process of obtaining the required search warrant for a crash resulting only in property damage. With just a $30 fine on the line, the hassle hardly is worth it. The only time officers pursue phone records is in a case like Allison’s, where there is a fatal crash and only if another vehicle is involved.

As a result, many phone-related crashes end up listed under “unknown cause.”

An outdated crash form also is to blame. Iowa law enforcement officers are using a crash form that is 13 years old. On it, officers have just one option for listing electronic distraction: “use of phone or other device.”

Multiple national guideline changes have been made to include new technologies on crash forms in hopes of more precise data for safety researchers. Despite that, Iowa has resisted changes to the form because doing so is an extensive process for the Iowa DOT. Alterations affect operations such as officer training, data collection and analysis, and existing databases.

But that is set to change in January. The Iowa DOT is revising the form to include an entirely separate category for driver distraction that will include electronic device options such as “manual operation on an electronic communication device (texting, typing, dialing)” and “talking on a handheld device.” It also will list “talking on a hands-free device” and “adjusting devices.”

(Left) Former Iowa crash report form. (Above) The new form allows for tracking better and pinpointing the specific distraction causing an accident.
(Left) Former Iowa crash report form. (Above) The new form allows for tracking better and pinpointing the specific distraction causing an accident. Credit: Iowa Department of Transportation
Credit: Iowa Department of Transportation


Across the nation, states are adopting stricter laws banning phone use behind the wheel.

Connecticut receives federal funding based on the specifics of its tight law and enforcement. Just this year, Illinois began ticketing drivers for use of any handheld device while driving. Other states have a graduated charge to its distraction tickets – higher with each offense.

Most states adopted a primary law from the beginning. Iowa hasn’t come close. “The bill was pretty well watered down to even get passage at that time,” said Doris Kelley, a former representative and vice chair of the House Transportation Committee when the current law passed.

Kelley recalls the bill stemming from a problem created when some Iowa communities came up with their own ban on texting within city limits. Legislators disliked the lack of consistency, so they attempted a statewide law. The approach was “something is better than nothing,” Kelley said.

But now, she said, it appears to her from being out among the public that texting is becoming even more prevalent than it was in 2011.

And Iowa lawmakers still cannot get the support to update the state’s law from the rarely enforced secondary law that exists today.

Virginia went through a similar process. It adopted a secondary texting ban in 2010 but, as of last July, began enforcing the law as a primary offense. The accompanying fine is $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses.

Already, tickets have more than doubled from the previous year.

Every month since the new law there was adopted, crashes caused by texting or talking on a cell phone in Virginia have been less than in the previous year – although sometimes just by a difference of two.

In Illinois, the number of crashes caused by cell phone distraction has increased slightly each year since the law began. That state has had a primary law banning texting since 2010.

Today Illinois drivers are under one of the country’s strictest bans; it prohibits holding a phone in the car. Even automated voice devices like “Siri” are illegal behind the wheel, which leaves the only legal option for communication to use a Bluetooth interface in the vehicle itself.

Despite the nationwide move toward stricter laws, some studies show texting bans are not always effective at stopping the highly dangerous behavior and may even cause more danger on the road.

A study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed no reduction in crashes in the months after a texting ban went into effect. In fact some states experienced a spike in collision claims.

Iowa shows similar results. In the year after the texting ban began, the number of crashes caused by phone use grew from 681 to 715.

Nebraska crash statistics show almost no change since its secondary texting ban went into effect in 2010. That year there were 141 crashes related to cell phone use. Two years later, crashes still have failed to go down.

The Insurance Institute’s study indicated that nearly half of surveyed drivers continue to text in states with a ban. “It’s one of those laws that people just ignore because it’s so hard to enforce,” said Pat Lind, general manager at Carousel Motors in Iowa City.

And when drivers attempt to hide the illegal behavior, they only create more distraction. Researchers found that drivers who lowered their phone, hiding it from view, were at an increased risk of crashing as they took their eyes further off the road and for longer periods of time.


Smith remembers the exact time texting took the life of her daughter, Allison – 3:25 p.m.

Allison Smith, killed in a November 2011 traffic accident in which state troopers suspect she was texting, was involved in several school sports at St. Ansgar Community High School. (Below) She loved horses, especially her own, Penny.
Allison Smith, killed in a November 2011 traffic accident in which state troopers suspect she was texting, was involved in several school sports at St. Ansgar Community High School. (Below) She loved horses, especially her own, Penny. Credit: Photos courtesy of Paul and Lesa Smith

Allison was coming home from school early the day she died. Normally she stayed after school for volleyball practice, but that day she drove home immediately after school got out – following a school bus.

The highway stop was a new one, Smith said. A family had just moved into the previously empty home. “It was devastating for us,” Smith said. “She was our only girl and the baby of the family.”

Allison Smith_Horse
Credit: Photo courtesy of Paul and Lesa Smith

Now, Smith’s message to lawmakers is that Iowa needs stronger laws to make people think twice about being on their phone.

“If it would save just one life, that would make it all the worthwhile,” she said.

State Rep. Clel Baudler is in a good position to make that happen. As chairman of the House Public Safety Committee and a former Iowa State Trooper who served 34 years, he said he supports a stricter law for distracted driving.

In fact, he experienced dangerous texting and driving on his way to the Statehouse for the opening of the 2014 legislative session. “I would’ve pulled her over myself for drunk driving – it was that bad,” Baudler, R-Greenfield, said.

Discouraged that the bill for primary enforcement didn’t pass, Bowman, the state senator, said he would look at other states during the interim to see what Iowa should be doing.

Relying on the idea of skipping to stricter options such as Illinois’ handheld ban, Bowman said legislators can try for a stricter law – one that will pack more punch – but it is less likely to pass.

Kelley, the former vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, said she knew it was going to be a hard push to pass the stronger bill based on the resistance she experienced toward government involvement. She calls the $30 that Iowa drivers are fined “nothing.” She said support from the federal level might be needed to stop texting while driving.


Three systems for communicating while driving exist: handheld, hands-free and a voice interface. The handheld method is traditional phone use that requires looking to punch in phone numbers, accept calls, hang-up and text.

Hands-free programs, like Siri on iPhones, allow users to verbally direct their phone through these steps, although they still must look and touch to confirm the call or text. While a hands-free system would appear to reduce distraction, researchers of texting and driving say there is little difference.

A 2006 study conducted at the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator indicated that any dialing was an increased risk for drivers. Systems like Siri are notorious for misunderstanding direction, causing more distraction. Such distractions haven’t always been a driving problem.

“My parents didn’t have to worry about driving down the road and trying to text,” Bowman said.

Tim Brown, a research scientist at the UI Driving Simulator explained: “if the (hands-free) system isn’t very good, it’s more distracting.” While interfaces for these programs are getting better, he said, room for improvement still exists.

The most advanced system for safer cell use is a voice interface built into your vehicle. This minimizes distraction.

The answer to stopping texting and driving is not a simple one, Brown said. He said advances in the auto industry that would lock out the sending and receiving of texts might have to happen.

Iowa DOT officials are trying to do just that through a new app called TEXTL8R. The voluntary app would disable phone capabilities when it detects a speed of greater than 15 mph and send an automatic response saying the driver is unavailable and will read the message once he or she has reached the destination.

The app also monitors driving behaviors and provides this information to the Iowa DOT, stripped of all personal identifiers, for research purposes.

Mark Lowe, the motor vehicle division director, said developers wanted “something more proactive than education, something we could actually put in their hands.” TEXTL8R is being tested at Sac County schools and is to be released to the public later this year.


“If it goes off, the temptation is going to be there to see what was going on,” said Shaun Vecera, a University of Iowa professor of psychology who studies visual attention.

Lately his work has collided with issues texting and driving raise. In February, he was part of a team that visited Senate committee members to speak about the dangers of distracted driving.

Vecera said the behavior that drives texting behind the wheel starts at an early age. “The social interaction that you get over the cell phone or text messaging is something that you’re trained from very early on when you have conversations and what the rules of conversations are,” he said.

These rules teach us to listen and give replies that work to continue the conversation. But behind the wheel, the basic rules become attention suckers.

“It’s part of their body almost,” Lesa Smith said, referring to teens and their cell phones. Smith said she warned her daughter about texting and driving. “We always said, ‘put your phone away, pay attention to the road.’ Parents say things, and you know how kids are.”

When focused on the conversation, the driver’s attention does not go to watching for driving situations that need a response. This may result in a number of bad outcomes – vehicle collisions, injury or death.

The luckiest outcome for a distracted driver is a close call. Former state Rep. Kelley remembers hers. She ended up swerving off the side of the road. After that, she quit texting.

Vecera said missing the lesson in that type of wake-up call is a crucial misstep in altering the behavior.

In situations where drivers happen to catch a wake-up call, Vecera said, human nature makes taking personal blame difficult. Psychologists call this “diffusion of responsibility.”

Ultimately, Vecera calls texting and driving a problem of awareness – one that might only be solved through teaching the kinds of things he teaches his students every day about psychology and how the mind works.


Texting bans don’t reduce crashes; effects are slight crash increases, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Highway Loss Data Institute
Interactive map: See the texting laws in each U.S. state

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