Studies have shown that a driver who is texting and driving is more impaired than an individual with an alcohol concentration of .08. Any activity which takes a drivers eyes off of the road is dangerous. An activity that results in a prolonged distraction from the roadway while driving places everyone around that driver in even greater danger. For this reason, effective July 1, 2017, texting and driving in Iowa will be considered "reckless conduct" – a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others. Texting and driving also becomes a "primary offense" which means that law enforcement may stop a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe the driver is violating this law.
On April 17, 2017, Governor Branstad signed into law two bills that greatly change the legal landscape regarding the use of a mobile device while driving a motor vehicle. The first was Senate File 234. The new law, which will take effect July 1, 2017, makes it illegal to use a hand-held electronic communication device to "write, send or view an electronic message" while a person is driving a vehicle unless the vehicle is at a complete stop, off the traveled portion of the roadway. The terms "write", "send", and "view", are defined as "the manual entry, transmission, or retrieval of an electronic message, and include playing, browsing or accessing an electronic message."
A hand-held device may be used for those purposes while driving only if it is voice operated or hands free. The new law authorizes law enforcement to stop and detain a person for such a violation; however, officers are not authorized to confiscate the device. Additionally, violation of this law carries with it a scheduled fine of $30, court costs and surcharges; however, such a conviction is not considered a moving violation for DOT purposes.
The other new changes to the law involving the use of a hand-held electronic communication device are in Senate File 444. This new law makes driving a vehicle while using an electronic device to "write, send or view an electronic message", prima facia evidence of reckless driving. This is a big deal on a number of different levels. It means that such conduct can be the basis for a vehicular homicide or a serious injury by vehicle charge or punitive damages in a civil cause of action.
The use of an electronic device while driving which causes an accident resulting in death would be considered vehicular homicide by reckless driving. Vehicular homicide by reckless driving is a Class C felony, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a fine ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, and restitution in the amount of $150,000.
The use of an electronic device while driving to "write, send or view an electronic message" which causes an accident resulting in serious injury would be considered a charge of serious injury by vehicle. This is a Class D felony, and is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine ranging from $750 to $7,500.
Classification use of an electronic device while driving as "reckless" also has significant consequences on civil actions arising out of car accidents. If an at-fault driver is proven to have been violating this new law at the time of the accident, the legal designation of this behavior as "recklesness" can result in punitive damages being awarded against the at-fault person. Punitive damages are in addition to damages meant to compensate the injured party for their losses and are designed specifically to punish the defendant and deter future similar conduct by other individuals within the community.