Teen drivers of Iowa beware: The Department of Transportation wants to shut down your smartphone.
The Iowa DOT plans to roll out an app called "TXTL8R" by early 2014. In case you are over the age of 16, TXTL8R means "text later" in smartphone talk. The DOT is choosing a tech firm to build the app.
The DOT will pick up the tab for any drivers between the ages of 14 and 17. Similar, commercial apps typically come with a purchase price of $75 to $300 or a monthly fee. (See "3 ways to keep your kids from texting.")
Andrea Henry, a spokesperson with the Iowa DOT, says the app will temporarily disable text and phone capabilities once a car reaches 15 mph and respond to an incoming call or text with a message that the person is driving. The app also would allow parents to monitor driving habits and notify them if their teen deletes the app from his or her phone.
You mean your state doesn't have an app?
Development of the app puts the Iowa DOT in a league of its own when it comes to texting-while-driving prevention. Kara Macek of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) says there are no other states considering this type of action in the fight against distracted driving.
While the GHSA believes these types of apps can definitely curb texting behind the wheel, Macek warns that they are only effective if drivers use them.
The state has no plans to make the app mandatory.
The Iowa DOT is "simply hoping to encourage safe driving behaviors and start conversations about driving habits," says Henry. The state Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau reports that texting behind the wheel was a major factor in 679 traffic accidents in Iowa in 2011.
A third party will monitor all information generated by the app; Henry says the DOT will not have access to individual drivers' information.
State Sen. Tod Bowman, chairman of the Transportation Committee, says that while the state won't force teen drivers to use the app, just looking at voluntary use would be valuable. "It would be interesting to conduct a study once it is up and running to study its effectiveness as well as how many drivers are using it," Bowman says.
Fines remain low
The DOT is promoting the app at the Iowa State Fair with a T-shirt giveaway to drivers who can pass a safety practice test. Once the fair packs up, the DOT will be looking for other venues to hype the app, "We will promote the app through a number of different channels, including driver training manuals," says Henry. The state has also purchased three driving simulators with a grant from State Farm.
While the state's app is a cutting-edge strategy, its current texting laws are not especially aggressive. Iowa law prohibits all drivers from texting, and those holding a restricted license are not allowed to use any electronic communication devices behind the wheel. Police can pull over a texting teenager on sight.
But a texting violation brings only a $30 fine, among the lowest in the country, and the conviction is not a moving violation that appears on the driver's motor vehicle record or affects insurance rates. Fines and penalties escalate if the driver causes an accident or injuries.
The application comes at a time when distracted driving deaths are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 3,331 distracted driving deaths in 2011 compared to 3,267 in 2010. Younger drivers are at an even bigger risk, with the highest proportion of distraction related to fatal accidents.