UniteGPS – Both the Iowa House and Senate solidified plans this past Wednesday to legislate a ban on handheld devices for bus drivers while behind the wheel. After last year’s attempt to pass the same legislation didn’t succeed, lawmakers and public safety advocates are aiming to get an official bill to the governor as soon as possible.

A ban on handheld devices for bus drivers may be coming into effect in Iowa later this year.

“You know, I’m passionate about this issue,” said Sen. Waylon Brown, R-Osage. “As chair of the Transportation Committee, I am fully committed to hopefully seeing this cross the finish line this year.”

Meanwhile, Wednesday also saw lawmakers proceed with House Study Bill 561 that separately forbids bus drivers from using handheld devices only in school or road construction zones. However, “this was just another idea” and not a “Plan B,” according to Rep. Brent Siegrist (R-Council Bluffs) who is chair of the subcommittee. 

Pre-existing law in Iowa already prohibits drivers from sending text messages, the only exceptions being navigation or phone calls while operating the vehicle. Tighter legislation will now prevent that as the state grapples with a rising number of driving incidents involving school buses.

Handheld phone ban in Iowa

According to Capt. Mark Stein of the Iowa State Patrol at Wednesday’s Senate subcommittee meeting, 354 vehicle crashes due to distracted driving occurred in 2021, including six fatalities, 29 injuries, and $4 million in damages. Enforcing undistracted driving can be complicated, explained the captain.

“When we see someone driving down the road with a device in their hand, are they texting? What are they doing? They can claim they’re doing something else, that they weren’t actually texting. It makes it challenging to enforce the laws that are already in the books.”.

In order to enforce this new regulation, the Senate bill would implement a $45 fine and violation if drivers were found driving with a cell phone or tablet in hand. Passing the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 25, was also House File 392 pushing to raise the scheduled fine to $100.

If the driver were to have an accident involving a phone, the penalty would go up to $500 and $1,000 if the accident caused a death.

All the while, drivers will still be able to use voice-activated devices or those built into the vehicle. Exceptions will be made for specific job-related activities, like police, emergency personnel, utility, and transit workers, among other positions. 

Iowa school districts’ response to ban on handheld devices

Dr. Theron Schutte, Superintendent of Marshalltown School District, attests thats driver safety is a valid area of concern for his community in Central Iowa. Although phone use has never been identified as the cause of a driving accident in Marshalltown, he opines that it’s certainly possible.

“We’ve had an inordinate number of bus car accidents during the time that I’ve been here, some of which were our fault, some of which were other drivers’ fault,” said Dr. Shutte in a UniteGPS Transportation Blog interview. “It wouldn’t shock me if cell phones were part of the problem.”

Although the state of Iowa requires bus drivers to fulfill a three-hour refresher course every year and review common negligent behaviors, issues still prevail.

“There’s been some progress but it just comes down to community awareness,” said Rex Kozak, Director of Transportation at Marshalltown School District. While supporting the use of cameras installed on buses to help prevent “your word against their word” situations when looking into incidents, the technology can only go so far.

“Before you were relying on the human aspect of it, but I would say that you’re still having a large number of people going through (stop signs), just not paying attention.”