A year after Iowa began cracking down on texting while driving, advocates and lawmakers in Nebraska hope to implement a similar policy.
Nebraska and Iowa both banned texting while driving in 2010 but classified the infraction as a “secondary offense,” meaning drivers must commit another traffic violation to be pulled over. Iowa made texting a primary offense last year, joining the majority of other states and offering Nebraska a legislative roadmap should the state decide to follow suit.
The issue has created a clash between conservative principles of limited government and personal accountability with a desire to reduce roadway tragedies. Now it’s up to legislators to strike a balance between concerns about unintended consequences and the risk of lost lives through inaction.
“If it was an important issue, it would be front and center, but it’s not viewed as such,” said Rob Reynolds, who has advocated for tougher distracted driving laws since his 16-year-old daughter was killed in a 2007 crash in Omaha caused by a teen who was texting while driving.
Over the past several years, Nebraska legislators have considered bills to make texting a primary offense or ban the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving, but the efforts have failed. Only four states — Nebraska, Florida, Ohio and South Dakota — treat texting as a secondary offense, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Two states, Arizona and Missouri, ban texting for young drivers but not adults. Montana doesn’t have a statewide ban.
The Iowa State Patrol announced earlier this month that citations issued by state troopers for texting increased by over 620 percent since the state shifted to primary enforcement in July 2017. The Nebraska State Patrol saw about a 50 percent decrease over the same period.
Iowa legislators approved the change in 2017 by wide margins. The bipartisan legislation added social media, games and internet surfing to the ban on texting, but allowed phones to be used for navigation and safety alerts.
Iowa state Sen. Michael Breitbach, a Strawberry Point Republican, said the tipping point came from new lawmakers who brought an increased awareness of the effects of distracted driving.
It would take a similar change in the Nebraska Legislature, said state Sen. Bob Krist, an Omaha Democrat who has repeatedly introduced bills to make texting a primary offense. Krist blamed the Legislature’s transportation committee for holding up past legislative efforts.
“The complement of that committee over the years has not wanted to address primary offense,” said Krist, who’s running for governor against incumbent Republican Pete Ricketts.
Nebraska state Sen. Merv Riepe, an Omaha-area Republican, said Iowa’s success at enforcing a stricter texting ban could open the door for Nebraska.
“It’s always easier to do something when you’ve got a real model that seems to be working,” Riepe said. “Iowa could be that model.”
Opponents to increased enforcement in Nebraska have focused on personal freedom, said Eric Koeppe, president and CEO of the National Safety Council of Nebraska. He said his organization, which lobbies for stricter enforcement of the texting ban, believes motorists have a shared responsibility for safety that demands attentiveness.
“Our responsibilities are not only to ourselves but all of the other people we share the road with,” Koeppe said.
But Spike Eickholt, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said officers already can stop drivers who are texting for other traffic violations. He argued that broadening police powers would erode the freedom of motorists.
Nationally, the American Civil Liberties Union has opposed texting bans on similar grounds. The organization also raises concerns about racial profiling.
The ALCU of Nebraska opposes making texting a primary offense, spokeswoman Heidi Uhing said in an email. Last year, the ALCU of Iowa called Iowa’s action “problematic” and “ineffective,” in part based on its theory that some drivers try to conceal their phones to avoid detection — creating a worse safety hazard.
Veronica Fowler, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Iowa, questioned how law enforcement officers identify potential violations.
“It is almost impossible for them to know when people are using their phone,” Fowler said.
Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Nathan Ludwig said troopers look for people scrolling and manipulating text on their phones. He said officers will pull up alongside cars or watch for signs of distracted driving.
“It’s pretty easy to tell when somebody is texting because they’re not looking around at you, they’re just in tune to their phone,” Ludwig said.
While there’s widespread agreement texting while driving is dangerous, it’s unclear whether taxing bans are effective in reducing crashes.
Collision insurance claim rates linked to distracted driving typically are flat, or even increase slightly, following the adoption of texting bans, said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. She called that a “perplexing result” for researchers.
“We don’t see that these laws are improving the bottom line of reducing crashes,” Cicchino said.
Iowa is on track for a decline in crashes linked to electronic devices so far this year, with 486 reported between January and June compared to 575 in the first six months of 2017, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. Current data for Nebraska isn’t available.
Adam Lathrop, executive director of the Iowa-Illinois Safety Council, supports Iowa’s action but said it could take time to see results, noting it took decades before seat belt use was widely adopted.
“It took time to get there,” Lathrop said. “Texting will get there as well, but until we make it something that is culturally frowned upon doing, I don’t know that we’ll have the widespread change that we’re looking for.”
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