Iowa’s law banning texting while driving is failing to reduce crashes, and officers seldom enforce it because of legal restrictions, an IowaWatch investigation shows.

Although texting-related crashes have increased in recent years, Iowa convicted on average only 2.5 drivers per county for texting last year, the investigation revealed.

Iowa Department of Transportation crash reports show the anti-texting law enacted in July 2011 has done nothing to decrease cell-phone related crashes. Instead, they have increased steadily.

The problem is worse than statistics show because distracted driving often is not reported after a crash.

In its investigation, IowaWatch examined state laws, traffic reports, studies and crash data for Iowa and other states and interviewed visual attention specialists, traffic safety officials, experts, statisticians, legislators and law officers.

“Texting while driving has become ubiquitous,” said Mark Lowe, director of the Iowa DOT’s Motor Vehicle Division.

Data for 2013 remain preliminary, but already show the highest number of phone-related crashes since 2009.

While some states have strictly banned all hand-held phone use, Iowa legislators have debated but failed to pass a law making texting behind the wheel a primary offense, for which an officer needs no other reason to pull you over.

Iowa’s law classifies the act as a secondary offense. That means officers can't stop a driver without some other violation, even if spotted texting.

“It’s like dipping your toe in the water instead of throwing everybody in the pool,” state Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, said.

Bowman, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, voted to increase texting enforcement and was disappointed when the House didn’t take it up.

Almost all states ban texting while driving. But only four do not enforce it as a primary offense -- Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and Florida.

Iowa law prohibits the use of an electronic device to send, receive or read a text message or email while driving. The charge is a simple misdemeanor with a $30 fine.

The law does not apply to operating a GPS or entering a telephone number, which specialists say carry the same risk.

Cell phones have accounted for more than 7,000 crashes statewide in the past decade, killing 24 people.

One was Allison Smith, a 17-year-old Stacyville student. She died in November 2011 on her way home from school when her car plowed beneath a stopped school bus as she was texting.

She probably never saw the bus. Phone records and the school bus video show her texting before impact on U.S. Highway 218 east of St. Ansgar. Iowa State Patrol crash investigators determined from air bag data she did not brake before the crash. The school bus driver and 21 children escaped without injury.

“She always had a smile on her face,” said Allison’s mother, Lesa Smith, who cooks at an assisted living facility. Lesa’s husband, Paul, farms near Stacyville.

Lesa Smith describes Allison as a typicial high school girl who played volleyball and basketball. She kept stats for the St. Ansgar High School football team. She loved horses -- especially her own, Penny -- and was close with her older brother, Cole.

Friends called her Ally.

Enforcement roadblock

The Iowa State Patrol has 358 officers. Yet last year only 252 texting tickets were issued statewide. Sgt. Scott Bright, state patrol spokesperson, said those numbers demonstrate the enforcement struggle on Iowa’s roadways.

As a trooper, Bright has seen it all with distracted driving -- women applying makeup, men shaving, people eating a bowl of cereal on the way to work, even people driving while working on a laptop computer. But he sees nothing more frequently than texting and driving -- at least one or two cases daily in his 15 to 20 minute drive to work.

People charged with texting while driving are typically initially pulled over for erratic driving.

“If someone’s texting, it won’t take long before they’re weaving and in and out of their lanes,” said Trooper Bob Conrad with the patrol’s division in Cedar Rapids, “and that is the biggest indicator.”

Law enforcement officers also have issued texting tickets if the person is spotted not wearing a seat belt or driving with expired registration.

Bright recalled watching a man recently texting next to him at a red light.

“You could see him hit the send button; then he would wait. I could actually see the light-up of the phone where the next message would come in and then he’d respond to that message,” Bright said.

Under Iowa law, Bright could do nothing about it -- until the driver took off, and Bright saw his tail light was burned out.

Technically, a driver can refuse to surrender a phone under the Fourth Amendment prohibiting search and seizure without a warrant. But Conrad said drivers usually obey automatically.

“If the last text was a minute ago, and it took me 45 seconds to stop and walk up to the car, I pretty much know what they were doing,” Conrad said.

Citations also can be issued after the fact if officers take the time to legally obtain driver phone records showing a half-completed text message before the collision.

Spotty records

Authorities say an inadequate system for reporting distraction-related crashes adds to the problem.

Traffic safety specialists say drifting or weaving accounts for 65 percent of all crashes, while phone-related distraction makes up less than 1 percent, according to crash history reports. That indicates texting is under-reported.

That makes it difficult to gauge the success of distracted driving laws. Much of that responsibility lies with the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

"We don’t know how to best address the issue if we don’t have statistics to guide us," said Jennifer Parsons, distracted driving coordinator with the bureau.

Traffic safety specialists say accurate crash report forms depend on a driver being alive and willing to admit to using a phone.

Conrad believes records are inaccurate because most drivers won't admit to texting. And officers rarely seek a warrant for phone records to prove them wrong.

Conrad said the only time officers pursue phone records is when a fatal crash involving another vehicle occurs.

An outdated crash form also is to blame. For 13 years Iowa resisted changing the form, the IowaWatch investigation found, because it's an extensive process for the Iowa DOT.

In January, the state plans to revise the form to include a separate category for driver distraction that will include electronic device options.

How Iowa compares

Across the nation, states are adopting stricter laws banning phone use behind the wheel.

Connecticut receives federal funding based its tight law and enforcement. Just this year, Illinois began ticketing drivers for use of any handheld device while driving. Other states have a graduated charge to its distraction tickets -- higher with each offense.

Most states adopted a primary law from the beginning. Iowa hasn’t come close. “The bill was pretty well watered down to even get passage at that time,” said former State Rep. Doris Kelley, D-Waterloo, vice chair of the House Transportation Committee when the current law passed.

Kelley recalls some Iowa communities banned texting on their own. Legislators disliked the lack of consistency, so they attempted a statewide law. The approach was “something is better than nothing,” Kelley said.

But now, she said, it appears to her texting is more prevalent than it was in 2011.

Iowa lawmakers still cannot get support to update the state’s law. Virginia did recently. Last July, it began enforcing the law as a primary offense, fining motorists $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses.

Already, tickets there have more than doubled from the previous year. Crashes caused by texting or talking on a cell phone in Virginia have been less each month than in the previous year, albeit slightly in some months.

Illinois drivers are under one of the country’s strictest bans; it prohibits holding a phone in the car. The number of crashes there caused by cell phone distraction has increased slightly each year since its law began in 2010.

Despite the nationwide move toward stricter laws, some studies show texting bans are not always effective and may cause more danger. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed no reduction in crashes and sometimes a spike in collision claims after a texting ban went into effect.

Iowa shows similar results. In the year after the texting ban began, the number of phone-related crashes grew from 681 to 715.

Lawmaker support

Lesa Smith remembers the exact time texting took the life of her daughter, Allison -- 3:25 p.m.

Allison was coming home from school early the day she died. Normally she stayed after school for volleyball practice. That day she drove home immediately after school got out -- following a school bus with a new stop in its route. A family had just moved into a previously empty home.

“It was devastating for us,” Smith said. “She was our only girl and the baby of the family.”

Now, Smith says, Iowa needs stronger laws to make people think twice about being on a phone.

“If it would save just one life, that would make it worthwhile,” she said.

State Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee and a former state trooper, supports a stricter distracted driving law.

On his way to the Statehouse for the opening of the 2014 legislative session, he spotted a driver texting.

“I would’ve pulled her over myself for drunk driving -- it was that bad,” Baudler said.

State Sen. Bowman said he would look to other states to see what Iowa should be doing. He said legislators can try for a stricter law, but it is less likely to pass.

Former State Rep. Kelley said she knew it would be hard to pass a stronger bill due to anti-government sentiment. She said a $30 fine is "nothing," and federal action may be needed.

This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. The writer, Sarah Hadley, is working an internship at The Courier this summer.

©2014 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)