‘It’s tearing our lives apart’ - Family pushes for stronger distracted driver laws in Iowa

Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 5:09 PM CST
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FLOYD COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG) - Law enforcement has long warned that Iowa’s ban on texting and driving doesn’t go far enough with smartphones offering web searching, movie streaming, and social media.

One family who lost their daughter, says they feel like they never got justice, because of Iowa’s distracted driving laws.

”Our world has been robbed of a really special, unique person,” said Peter Bengtson, Ellen’s dad.

On August 2nd, 2020 Ellen Bengtson was riding her bike in Charles City when a truck crashed into her. She died and the truck’s driver admitted he was looking at his phone when it happened.

He was charged with vehicular homicide... then acquitted.

”This was part of the gap in Iowa’s laws is that the person that was driving is looking at a Facebook notification and that didn’t fit into the manual texting parts. The way the Iowa law reads currently, so, the judge dismissed the charges before it was ever seen by a jury,” said Mark Wyatt, Iowa Bicycle Coalition Executive Director.

Under Iowa law, texting and driving is illegal. But just looking at an electronic device while driving is allowed - like watching GPS directions.

And in this case, the judge determined the truck’s driver was looking at a Facebook notification... which she said is not a crime.

”And this was despite the confession at the scene with emergency responders that he was stupid. He was looking at his phone, looking up a boat sail and that’s what he was doing for nearly 10 seconds. I mean it’s a three-ton missile going down the road that could hit anything. And it’s tearing our lives apart,” said Peter.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports more than 3,000 people died from distracted driving in 2020.

Now Ellen’s family is pushing for stronger laws in Iowa...

”Selfishly, it doesn’t bring Ellen back, but if we can and find some sort of meaning out of her death, creates a situation where the law is improved,” said Peter.

“The emphasis... that one push,” said JoAnn Bengtson, Ellen’s mom.

Hoping her story can prevent distracted driving deaths in the future.

”If you get in a car, I don’t even care if you’re driving or not. You have a responsibility. Do not text people that you know are driving. If you love that person, don’t text them while they’re behind the wheel, they could die,” said Susan Bengtson, Ellen’s sister.

Ellen was just starting her career as an environmental engineer, after studying at Yale and Columbia Universities.

Her whole family came from Washington state to join her for RAGBRAI in 2018. And the upcoming holidays are a painful reminder of their loss.

”Laws need to be improved so that this can’t continue and that other Iowans have a chance to be with their whole family and their loved ones during the holidays, which we will never have again,” said Peter.

While almost all states ban texting and driving, only 14 states have hands-free laws. A campaign called ‘Drive Safe Iowa’ has been launched with a petition pushing to update Iowa’s distracted driving laws.