Written by ERIN JORDAN The Cedar Rapids Gazette– More people have died on Iowa roadways this year than in each of the past five years.
Excessive speed, distracted driving, impaired driving and not wearing seat belts are some of the motorist behaviors that pushed fatalities to 372 so far in 2023 — up 10 percent from last year, Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla said Wednesday.
When Dinkla talks about behaviors that led to crashes that killed mothers, fathers, children and grandparents, he uses the words “choose” and “decide.”
“People are choosing to drive these speeds,” he said, referring to speeds of up to 150 mph. “People are choosing to drive impaired with illicit and prescription drugs.”
Instead, “we need every single motorist to hop on board and think ‘safety’ each time they get behind the wheel,” said Dinkla, who has been serving with the State Patrol since 2007.
With a handful of days still left in 2023, Iowa’s running total of 372 traffic deaths already is the highest since 2016, when there were 402, and tops the average of the previous five years of 325 fatalities per year, according to Iowa Department of Transportation data.
Other 2023 findings include:
— The months with the largest number of traffic deaths were over the summer — August at 47, July at 40 and June at 38.
— About 70 percent of 2023’s traffic deaths happened in rural areas.
— In 46 percent of fatalities, the person who died was not wearing a seat belt. In another 13 percent, seat belt use was unknown.
— Nearly 30 percent, or 107, of the traffic deaths were people not in cars. These were pedestrians (29), people on motorcycles (62), ATV/UTVs (12) and bicycles (five).
Ban on hand-held cellphone use
Distracted driving caused 9,201 crashes and led to 20 deaths on Iowa roadways in 2022, the Iowa Department of Public Safety reported. Nationally, cellphone use contributed to 12 percent of distracted driving traffic deaths in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“We’re already seeing two problematic trends with crashes — intersection-related crashes and lane departures,” Dinkla said of the 2023 fatalities. “Both of those lean toward people being distracted.”
A Washington, Iowa, man was charged in September with vehicular homicide after he was accused of running a red light on Highway 6 and Boyrum Street in Iowa City and striking a vehicle, killing the driver and seriously injuring the passenger, police reported. Traffic camera video showed Drake Brezina 24, was holding his cellphone in front of his face in the seconds before the crash. A criminal complaint said Brezina, who faces a trial in March, “admitted that he had run a red light, that he had been distracted, and that he had been looking away from the roadway.”
Law enforcement officials have asked lawmakers in recent years to pass legislation to ban hand-held use of mobile devices while driving in Iowa. Senate File 547 passed overwhelmingly in the Iowa Senate earlier this year, but the House hit the brakes.
Officers say the state’s prohibition on texting while driving, enacted in 2017, is difficult to enforce because drivers can say they were making a call or using the device’s GPS, which still is allowed under Iowa law.
“Hindering drivers from messing with their phones by requiring a voice-activated or hands-free mode will not eliminate all the risks of distraction,” Sen. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, said on the Senate floor earlier this year. “But it will define the line to not cross over, and by doing so, will improve safety on our roads.”
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, recently told The Gazette he expects “to have a robust conversation” about SF 547 in the 2024 session, which starts in January.
“I think some of it last year it got tied up in some other conversations that were happening with similar pieces of policy,” he said. “We have to get a good feel on where the actual support is in the caucus, because it’s pretty divided. I mean, I think everyone kind of knows that, but I expect that to be something that’s definitely discussed within the caucus. It’s fate I don’t know at this time.”
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said House Democrats are “ready to pass the bill on the House side.”
Speeds up to 150 mph
Iowa State Patrol cited more than 1,100 drivers with driving more than 100 mph so far in 2023. This is on par with 2022, and slightly lower than the high of nearly 1,500 citations in 2020.
“These are not just pursuits, these are people just literally driving down the road,” Dinkla said, adding that troopers have cited people for driving over 100 mph on interstates, highways and two-lane county roads. “They say, ‘I’m just running late to an appointment.’ ‘I’m running late to a homecoming dance’.”
The top speeds clocked by state troopers in 2023 were 150 mph in May and 140 in July and September. “These are speeds that law enforcement don’t even do when they are responding to certain calls because they know the consequences if they get in a crash,” Dinkla said.
New Year’s Eve enforcement
While New Year’s Eve isn’t the deadliest day of the year for car crashes (that dubious distinction is reserved for July 4) it’s still a time when more people drive impaired with alcohol or drugs, Dinkla said.
If you party too much on New Year’s Eve, find a sober driver or call a ride-share, he said. “Same as all of our major holidays, we will be having extra law enforcement out on the roads.”
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