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Distracted Driving Laws: What Is The Right Balance?

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MAQUOKETA, Iowa - As cars and trucks drive past downtown in this Jackson County seat, a state senator acknowledges that something must be done in Iowa to strengthen distracted driving laws.

"With everybody sharing the road, they're driving a lethal weapon," Sen. Tod Bowman, a Democrat from Maquoketa, said.

Bowman is a co-chair on the state legislature's transportation committee, along with Rep. Josh Byrnes, a Republican from Osage. Bowman said the 2014 legislative session in Des Moines will involve a look at stronger laws to try and combat distracted driving, whether by phone usage, texting or other means.

Texting and driving is banned in Iowa but the issue comes when law enforcement officers see a driver doing it but cannot tag it with another violation at that moment.

"Current law says it has to be a secondary offense," said Bowman. "With this added language, they would have the ability to pull them over when they're not maintaining control of their vehicle."

There's the balance of a stronger proposal. How to give law enforcement officers more latitude to pull a driver over for distracted driving but not get other drivers caught on stops.

"We're looking at the legislation modeled by Arizona to look at the driver or operator maintaining a speed we deem reasonable and prudent," said Bowman.

In the neighboring county, Jones County Sheriff Greg Graver described distracted driving as a "very big issue" and welcomes extra provisions that would make it a primary offense.

"(Lawmakers) give us the ability to stop for a seat belt violation, which is protecting their own life, but somebody texting and driving is putting everybody else's life in danger yet we have to have another reason to stop them," said Graver.

Safety issues are renewed this week as a Virginia study showed that simply talking on a phone does not prove dangerous, which is counter to other studies. Yet the real danger, according to the findings, comes from dialing, texting or simply reaching for the phone.

Yet Doug Valentine, of State Farm in Cedar Rapids, said another element to look into is the emerging technology itself. Texting may be fading as smart phones improve.

"Webbing (Internet usage) is on the huge increase as people update their Facebook pages and their social media sites and becoming distracted," said Valentine. "We don't even have the exact percentages (of drivers who text) because people never admit to texting while they're driving. You can almost always figure, when there's a rear-end (crash) and they don't have a reason, there must be some form of texting going on."

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