Editorial Roundup: Iowa

Des Moines Register. January 29, 2023.

Editorial: Celebrate cycling by committing to safety

The Iowa Code elevates all sorts of interests above cyclists’ interest in not being mowed down by drivers.

July will mark 50 years since the idea that became the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa was hatched (the first ride was actually in late August). But despite half a century of weeklong celebrations of bicycle recreation, and the state as a whole, Iowa’s laws remain less friendly to bicyclists than many others states’.

The Iowa Code elevates all sorts of interests above cyclists’ interest in not being mowed down by drivers. A driver who only looks at a phone before a crash, for instance, instead of manipulating its controls, is not criminally liable under the distracted driving law. Penalties that apply after severe crashes involving a pedestrian or a four-way stop do not apply to the same crash involving a bicyclist. Confusion persists about how much responsibility drivers have to give bicyclists space on a road.

Iowa has made strides in setting aside spaces for cyclists, including networks of trails in many parts of the state and dedicated lanes in some cities. That’s great, and each advance is a boon for safety. But the availability of such avenues does not change cyclists’ right to use most roads or motorists’ responsibility to be aware of their surroundings. The trails were built to promote and facilitate cycling, not to segregate it from driving.

It’s also worth emphasizing that the primary goal of stricter laws and stiffer penalties is not to come down harder on people after traffic accidents. Yes, people who are clearly malicious or incompetent or negligent should lose privileges and face other consequences.

But distracted driving in particular is a widespread scourge, practiced by those who might well think that they are quite attentive and defensive drivers. Iowa State Patrol officials say it’s involved in about a fifth of crashes.

So it’s awareness, more than deterrence, that is needed most to help more people realize that a “quick glance” at a phone is often not that quick — and that a brief look is all the time that’s needed for a deadly crash.

State lawmakers have a chance — again — to correct bike-law shortcomings this winter. Advocates have for years been trying to require drivers to use electronics only in “hands-free” mode, but the bills keep dying at the Statehouse. A hearing on Senate File 60 on Monday included testimony from dozens of people about close calls and tragedies involving distracted drivers.

Relatives of Ellen Bengtson, a 28-year-old killed while riding a bike outside Charles City, told lawmakers about the grief of losing her — and their horror at a judge deciding to dismiss the charge against a pickup truck driver who investigators said was looking at his phone for over 9 seconds before striking her from behind.

The new bill includes several exceptions that would permit emergency personnel and people in certain circumstances to use phones and other devices while driving.

It is hard to think of a reason to slow-walk this change any longer. The current law is too wishy-washy to convey to Iowa drivers that they have no business focusing their eyes or their attention on a device while they’re behind the wheel. The risks are too great and far too unpredictable, especially when slower-moving cyclists and pedestrians are involved.

It’s a reform that everybody at the Statehouse could be proud of.

And of course lawmakers need not stop there. They could adopt more measures proposed by advocates including the Iowa Bicycle Coalition:

A bill to correct the inconsistency in penalties when bicyclists are injured or killed has gained the approval of a subcommittee. It’s also not too late to introduce legislation to have Iowa join the majority of states that require drivers passing bicycles to leave at least 3 feet of space. And, more broadly, there is much more room to keep expanding recreation spaces by funding the voter-approved Land & Water Conservation Fund through either the state’s billions of surplus dollars or a dedicated sales-tax increase, or both.

Taking these steps would add another reason to party to this summer’s 50th RAGBRAI, and not just for Iowans. Visitors from around the country and the world could take home with them stories of how Iowa has taken the lead in demonstrating that it cares about cycling 52 weeks a year.