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Deputy: Distracted, impaired driving a concern

CONTRIBUTED GRAPHIC COURTESY OF THE IOWA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

Warmer weather, graduation, vacations, weekend and holiday getaways — central Iowans will be hitting the roadways to enjoy the summer season.

But a local law enforcement officer and traffic safety expert warns these fun times could turn deadly if Iowans don’t follow the rules of the road and take responsibility for the choices they make when they get behind the wheel — including texting while driving.

Sgt. Ben Veren with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office said the recent legislative session in Des Moines yielded a stronger texting while driving law, designed to give law enforcement more authority to pull over those drivers they observe texting on their cell phones and other electronic devices.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Veren said. “This (legislation) is much tougher than what we had before. It puts some teeth into the law.”

But enforcement will still be difficult, the sergeant said, conceding drivers may argue they weren’t texting, but rather making a phone call or going through their contact list on the phone.

“Officers are going to have to articulate their observations,” he said. “Enforcement is still going to be difficult.”

But if it’s clear someone was texting or playing a game on their electronic devices, “then we’ve gained a lot of ground.”

Veren said it’s obvious the legislation is in response to growing concerns that texting behind the wheel, as well as all forms of distracted driving, is playing a significant role in the number of injuries and fatalities on Iowa’s roadways.

“The numbers don’t lie, it’s pretty evident,” said Veren, pointing to recent statistics issued by the Iowa Department of Transportation calculating a 15-year span of cell phone-distracted driving.

In 2001, 518 total crashes on Iowa roadways were because of drivers being distracted by the use of a cell phone or other electronic device. In 2016, that number jumped to 1,230.

Total injuries — 357 in 2001 (one fatality); 603 in 2016 (13 fatalities).

Veren said drivers are usually pretty quick to put down their cell phones when they are in sight of marked patrol cars, however …

When law enforcement are in unmarked vehicles, they see the reality — “more people are using devices than not,” Veren insists.

Of course, cell phones are not the only distraction. Distracted driving means a whole host of issues — everything from adjusting the radio dial, applying make-up, shaving, having a large dog or any pet sitting in the driver’s lap, tending to a crying child in the backseat — all can yield tragic results, Veren said.

“Even if you go to a hands-free device, it’s still a distraction — a cognitive distraction.”

Veren said legislation, while in some cases effective, will not solve the problem.

“We as a society have to decide in a cultural change,” he said, adding that education and getting everyone from young people to veteran drivers to make the commitment that their focus must always be on the road ahead.

Motorcycles

Two motorcycle accidents in Marshall County in 2017 is also a concern for Veren and his fellow sheriff’s deputies.

“You know, with these specific examples, we don’t have all the information yet as to what happened, but I think the biggest thing to note is that we do not have a helmet law in Iowa,” he said. “Wearing a helmet greatly increases your chance of survival. It can make a difference.”

Veren said as seat belts have contributed greatly in protecting drivers and passengers in their cars and trucks, helmets too can be a lifesaver.

And while many motorcyclists believe a helmet interferes in their personal enjoyment as they travel down the highway, “I would trade that inconvenience for safety,” Veren said.

Drivers, as well, have a responsibility in keeping an eye out for those operating motorcycles and bicycles.

“We all need to watch out for each other,” he said.

Impaired driving

And while there’s been an emphasis on texting and driving lately, there’s no question that impaired driving is still the No. 1 concern of law enforcement.

While there have been numerous educational campaigns touting the dangers of drinking and driving as well as those who may be impaired because of illicit drugs or prescription medicine, Veren said it remains a “huge problem” on Iowa roadways.

“The vast majority of people agree it’s a problem,” he said. “But they have this false idea that ‘it’s not going to happen to me.’

“We’re in denial, and again, whether it’s impaired driving or distracted driving, no matter who you are, what the demographics are, or whether you’re 100 miles from home or a mile from home, it’s a big problem. In this line of work, unfortunately, I’ve seen people killed in line sight of their home.

“At the same time, we need the public’s help. Call us and let us know if you think someone is impaired,” he said. “We’ve had these (education) campaigns since the 1980s — take the keys, take a cab, but it still happens too often. Until tragedy strikes, what’s it going to take to drive that point home?”

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