Editorial: Iowa lags in driver safety


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Drivers in Iowa are subject to one of the weakest sets of driving-safety laws in the country, according to a report released Wednesday from the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The annual report graded safety laws around the country and placed Iowa among the bottom 11 states in the United States. Among the concerns raised in the report was Iowa’s lack of a primary rear-seat seat-belt law and an all-rider motorcycle-helmet law.

Iowa’s relatively weak laws may well be to blame for the state’s higher-than-average rate of traffic fatalities. In 2012, 365 people died in automobile accidents in Iowa; that’s 11.87 people per 100,000 residents, based on statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The national rate in 2012 was 10.69 deaths per 100,000 residents. In Illinois, a state ranked highly in the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety report, the 2012 fatality rate was 7.43 per 100,000.

Though traffic-fatality rates have fallen slightly in Iowa over the past few years, there is clearly room for more improvement. Tighter safety laws such as those passed in other states could help bring Iowa in line with the country’s safest states.

One such law that could help is a wholesale ban on cell-phone use by drivers, a law that has been on the books since Jan. 1 in Illinois. Currently, drivers are forbidden to text in Iowa, but the ban does not extend to other potentially distracting phone use.

Distracted driving is a leading cause of car crashes nationwide, accounting for 421,000 crashes and 3,328 fatalities in 2012. A full cell-phone ban, onerous as it may seem, would likely have a positive effect on the incidence of traffic fatalities.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness in Iowa’s canon of traffic-safety laws is the lack of a motorcycle-helmet law. Iowa is one of only three states that do not require motorcyclists to wear helmets, despite clear evidence that helmets very often keep motorcyclists alive in crashes.

In 2012, there were 59 motorcycle fatalities in Iowa — 47 of those who died were not wearing helmets. Across the Missouri River in Nebraska, there were 22 motorcycle deaths in 2012; only two of those who died did not have helmets.

The most pernicious cause of traffic accidents, however, is alcohol impairment. In 2012, one-quarter of all traffic deaths in Iowa involved a driver with a blood-alcohol content greater than the current legal limit of 0.08.

For whatever reason, despite massive public-relations campaigns and stricter punishments, driving under the influence of alcohol remains a leading cause of death on the road. One way to potentially reduce impaired driving, however, would be to make ignition-interlock devices mandatory for all first-time OWI offenders.

Ignition-interlock devices are mechanisms linked to a car’s ignition that require individuals to pass a breath test to start the engine. Data from a number of outlets show that recidivism rates among drunk drivers fall by about 70 percent when these devices are used.

The high incidence of death on Iowa’s roads is unnerving, but there are some easy steps the Legislature could take to make Iowans safer. To do so, the Legislature should strike at the root causes of traffic accidents — distraction and alcohol, particularly.

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