Bicycle and Traffic Safety Issues

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 19, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Trooper Bob Conrad, public resource officer with the Iowa State Patrol, Luke Hoffman, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, and Brett Tjepkes, bureau chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, discuss efforts to pass a hands-free-driving law in Iowa, as well as a variety of other bicycle and traffic safety issues. April is recognized as National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Linh Ta, reporter for Axios Des Moines.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.



Distracted driving and the push for a hands-free law in Iowa. We'll discuss that and more with bicycle and motor vehicle safety experts on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite's 1,600 employees are our company's greatest asset. A family run business, Elite supports volunteerism, encourages promotions from within, and shares profits with our employees.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at


For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 19th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: On this edition of Iowa Press, we're going to talk about traffic safety with some people who are working in the field. If you follow the Iowa legislature, there have been debates about traffic enforcement cameras and about distracted driving. We'll pursue those subjects and others with our three guests. They are Luke Hoffman. He is the Executive Director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. Brett Tjepkes is the Bureau Chief for the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau. And Trooper Bob Conrad is the Public Resource Officer for the Iowa State Patrol. Gentlemen, thanks for being here today.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you very much.

Henderson: Joining our conversation are Linh Ta of Axios Des Moines and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: So, gentlemen, let's just start with getting a lay of the land and understand some context. Brett Tjepkes, I'll start with you. Iowa had a high number of traffic fatalities last year, the most since 2016 I believe. Tell us a little bit more about those numbers. And do we have a sense of why that was such a bad year? And it sounds like this year the numbers at this point are at a better pace. But expand on that if you would.

Tjepkes: Yeah, the fatalities in Iowa, traffic fatalities have been going up the last couple of years. I think some of that was related to the pandemic. There were open roads, people were maybe feeling their freedoms a little bit more than they had in the past. And so, we saw a little bit of a spike coming in. It's hard to tell for sure why those things are happening. But I know that what we're trying to do at the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau is really trying to lower that number every day. Every life matters and we know that when somebody is killed or seriously injured in a traffic fatality, in a traffic crash, that it devastates families and communities. So, that's something that we're trying to drive down every single day.

Murphy: Luke, how about the numbers from the bicyclist's perspective? What has the trend been on that in recent years?

Hoffman: Yeah, so over the last couple of years, in 2022 I think it was four deaths from cyclists that were involved in a vehicle crash. And then there was five last year. But the acceptable number is zero. So, we're trying to work in concert with our partners in law enforcement and in the legislature to advance policy that is going to protect people, which I think is the first order of business for government.

Murphy: And Bob, out of all of these incidents that we're talking about, do we have a sense of what role, what percentage distracted driving specifically plays a role in?

Conrad: Yeah, you know, we did a survey at the State Fair last year and we found over 50% of the people that told us that they were distracted in that car, that they were using their phone when they were on the roadway. And we see it. I think people on the road are seeing it. You hear everybody come to me when I'm on the road and they'll say, what are we going to do about this problem?

Henderson: If 50% are admitting they're distracted, doesn't it mean a lot more are?

Conrad: I would say that would be true. There's several people that probably aren't going to tell us the accurate truth on that, yeah.

Ta: Luke, one of the things that didn't pass the legislature again this year was the hands-free bill. Can you talk a little bit about why that didn't pass? And why is it important to your organization?

Hoffman: Iowa Bicycle Coalition is a statewide non-profit organization in Iowa and this is our number one policy priority, passing hands-free. Over 34 states at this point have passed some version of hands-free. Iowa has yet to do this. But the way I look at it personally is this is our generation's seatbelt law. If you look at the arch of history since the 1970s, which was the worst year for traffic fatalities in Iowa through 1986 when we had mandatory seatbelt laws, you see those numbers and you see them dramatically go down. And the only way we're going to achieve a similar transformation in terms of saving lives, which again protecting people the first order of business for government and law enforcement, is to have this hands-free law passed. And so, for us at the Iowa Bicycle Coalition we're the non-profit partners and champions and we like to work in concert with law enforcement. It's DPS's bill and we're here to champion, shout out and support the need for this.

Murphy: And for folks who might not be following that closely, the hands-free proposal would say that a driver can only use voice technology to operate a phone, they could not operate a mobile device with their hands while driving.

Hoffman: Bluetooth essentially, yes.

Henderson: Bob, you mentioned that the Department of Public Safety, and the Iowa State Patrol is part of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, what is your perspective on why it's so difficult to get this bill passed?

Conrad: You know, I think a lot of people have different ideas about freedoms, what you should be able to do and what you shouldn't be able to do in a car, and I look back and you mentioned the seatbelt law, we know it saves lives, we know that it's going to reduce fatalities. And when we're dealing with distractions, I think we see a lot of people that are affecting people that are innocent, people that shouldn't be involved in that crash. When someone dies and it's not their fault, we take that very seriously. And those families, I'm the one that goes and knocks on the door and I'm tired of knocking on doors. So, I think there are certain people that don't see that side of it, they don't see the perception of how bad it really is and they're kind of holding off and saying, we don't have enough numbers, we don't have enough stats and I think we do have that. I think you see the states that have made that change are getting the reductions.

Henderson: Brett, I remember covering a news conference featuring former Governor Terry Branstad and the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau asking for legislators to do this. What, in your view, is the thing that is going to pass this bill in Iowa?

Tjepkes: Well, I think more awareness that it's not an innocent crime. Other people are being affected. It's just like what Bob was saying is that it's not victimless. My friend Kristi Castenson, her husband and mother-in-law were killed in a crash by somebody that was distracted, didn't see a stop sign, didn't see an intersection and plowed into that car killing Kristi's husband and mother-in-law. They were innocent people just driving down the road and going to a doctor's appointment just like anything any of us would be doing every day. And to have that awareness that this isn't just a freedom that I'm not hurting anybody except myself, isn't true. There are people being injured and killed in crashes from distraction every day.

Henderson: Bob, let's turn to another issue that the legislature has actually come to agreement on since they have been debating this way back starting in 2011. The legislature has agreed to regulate traffic cameras. Traffic cameras are sort of a bit of controversy for some people who get a ticket from this traffic camera. Why should Iowa have traffic cameras?

Conrad: You know, if we can figure out ways to enforce laws and have people do the right thing, that's about safety, isn't it? So, as far as the traffic camera part goes, we look at different areas. Cedar Rapids has had them for quite a while. I can tell you in that area I have seen cars slow down in the areas where the traffic cameras are. I don't have the data to tell you that -- because the State Patrol does not have traffic cameras -- that it helps beyond those zones. I can't tell you that. But anything that makes roads safer is a good thing, in my opinion, just like hands-free and stuff like that.

Henderson: Brett, municipalities are going to have to present to the Department of Transportation evidence that this traffic camera is placed in an area where it will enhance public safety. Where are they going to get that data?

Tjepkes: Well, the Department of Transportation has all kinds of crash data, traffic volume data, and I don't know the particulars about this bill. But, to Bob's point, anything that is going to make roadways safer is something that we're very eager to see with the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau and regulating it, that's going to be up to the policymakers on how that is done and how administrative rules are written. But we have very robust data on traffic crashes, fatalities, speeds, all of those things. We know. So, I'm very confident that they'll be able to have really good information to put that together.

Murphy: Bob, before we move on real quick, I'm just curious to get your thought. When we hear this debate at the Capitol, one of the biggest things of critics, opponents say is it is taking away an individual's rights to face their accuser -- do you have a response to that of where you get a ticket from a machine?

Conrad: Sure. You know, from my perspective as a trooper, and I've been doing this 34 years now, I'd like to make that contact with people, explain to them why they got the ticket and that. With that, you don't have that option and I could see why people would say that. But when it comes right down to it, I know a lot of times they talk about it being a thing to just get more money and more revenue to come in. Safety and money sometimes obviously cross. But I think really when you talk about safety, when you talk about a loved one's life, when you talk about someone that is never going to be there again for Christmas, those kinds of things, that is where my focus goes to. I guess maybe I'm somewhat fortunate that I don't have to deal with the revenue portion of it. That doesn't come to me. It goes back into general funds and stuff like that. But, for me, making sure that those people go home at the end of the day is what I want. Again, doing this 34 years, death notification is something I've gotten way too good at.

Murphy: Luke, your organization has been advocating for standardizing penalties in fatal crashes. Just curious to have you talk a little bit more about that and where that push came from.

Hoffman: Yeah, so standardizing penalties, the impetus behind that is that there shouldn't be a different penalty if you are in a car and you hit a cyclist or if you're in a car and you hit another vehicle and it results in an injury or fatality. Those should be the same. And it's an issue of justice and fairness. So, for the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, knowing that there is a discrepancy in terms of those penalties, we wanted to make sure that folks know that we're vulnerable road users as cyclists. So, really the burden should be there should be more protections for people who are called VRUs with the DOT, but are just regular human beings. So, for us it's an issue of justice and fairness.

Murphy: Has that message been received at the Iowa Capitol yet? How's that going?

Hoffman: I think this is going to be one of our big pushes next legislative session. We did get it out of the full transportation committee this current session in the Senate side. But I'd like to see it go all the way.

Ta: Brett, one of the things that we've been talking about here are some policy changes that could help improve the number of traffic fatalities and injuries. But, is there anything that we could do with our street infrastructure or design or build anything to try to also improve safety for people?

Tjepkes: Yes. At the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau, we are mostly focused on driver behavior. So, we're trying to influence drivers to make safer decisions through education, awareness, enforcement plays a piece on that. There needs to be consequences to risky driving behavior that hurts other people. But I do know that engineering departments and the Department of Transportation have quite a few programs trying to influence road diets and safer driving, safer speeds by how roadways are designed. That isn't something that we do in the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau. But it is part of a larger safe system approach that we need to look at safer vehicles, safer road users, safer roadways and there needs to be redundancies in all of these things to make the roadways safter. So, it's definitely a piece and I know that those things are happening across the state.

Ta: And Luke, for you guys, is there any type of infrastructure improvements that you think could be made to streets to help improve them for cyclists?

Hoffman: I think one of the number one things is that speed is a killer. We need to have better speed limits, looking at things like safe routes to school, which is a program we partner with the DOT, and how can we advance that through some of the programming we do? I would lift up the infrastructure audit that we do, which is a tool kit that we have from the national AARP and we use that toolkit going into communities so you look at an elementary school in Coralville, we partner with folks in law enforcement, teachers, parents, everybody in the community to say, what is the safest route to school? How do we protect that as a community? And intentionally lay out here are the needs in terms of that route. Maybe there is a missing piece of the sidewalk that presents something that we need to fix, as a simple example. So, that Safe Routes to School program, really proud to have that for the last 17 years with the DOT, identifying those infrastructure gaps and then making sure that we work in concert with the community to build safer streets and roads.

Henderson: Luke, there was a bill that is headed to the Governor's desk that deals with crosswalks. People think of crosswalks often as a place where pedestrians cross. But they have now added people on skateboards and people in a wheelchair and maybe even people on a bike, either riding it or walking it through a crosswalk. If you could, just walk us briefly through that bill and why it was a priority?

Hoffman: Yeah, I can walk us through the crosswalk bill, no problem. So, this was our top priority this legislative session. It has been on the to do list for a while, but really, really proud to get this thing done. And the reason why it was so important to us is our organization is the Iowa Bicycle Coalition and just underscoring that word coalition, working in concert with a group of partners towards a shared vision and goal. And in this context, we had AARP, we had researchers at the University of Nebraska and Iowa all saying, there is a gap in our state code and we need to fix it. Now, it's a small fix, changing the definition of pedestrian to being someone who is afoot, to any pedestrian whether they are on two wheels, four or on foot, maybe it's a parent with a stroller pushing a kid through that. The parent would be protected. A car would have to yield when they're in a crosswalk. But, the stroller with the baby is not necessarily protected under current state code until this takes effect on July 1st now that the law is passed. And so, it's about protecting everyone. It's a clear and convincing victory for all Iowans. It's an example of how you can make a small change that can have a big impact for everybody because inevitably we're all going to be a user of a crosswalk at some point in our lives as Iowans.

Henderson: Brett, this brings up a bigger issue about being aware, education. Sometimes people talk about motorists not noticing motorcyclists. How much more education needs to be done in Iowa to educate motorists about the other people that are sharing the road?

Tjepkes: Well, quite a bit. When we talk about vulnerable road users, when we're kind of partnering with all of our people on our different programs, we're still always looking at the speed, we're always looking at distracted, we're always looking at impaired and these are things that detract from our focus to what is most important and that is driving a vehicle and using the road. And so, we're always looking at new programs and trying to get in front of young drivers and getting them started out on the right foot. And so, we work in concert with the Department of Transportation, with their driver’s education program and how can we complement that? How can we support that? Just last year we worked with them to have an assessment on their driver’s education program and just looking for any gaps, any enhancements, any recommendations that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came in, helped facilitate this assessment. And so, there is a host of things that are on a list to work towards. And so, we'll continue to work with them and see how we can complement and support as much as possible.

Murphy: Brett, one way I know that the department tries to educate drivers is through the traffic safety billboards that we see in our bigger cities, including some periodically humorous or witty messages about encouraging safe driving. But it has been interesting the federal Traffic Safety Administration has taken an interest in those too and is now maybe recommending that maybe those aren't the proper way and maybe they actually have the exact opposite impact of what they're intending. What is the latest in the department's analysis of these billboard messages and whether they are accomplishing what they set out to?

Tjepkes: I wouldn't want to speak for the Department of Transportation. We're in the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau and part of public safety. I think with the guidance from the federal government, it's parameters. We don't want to overuse those billboards, we don't want to overuse those overhead message signs and we want to keep them focused on a traffic safety message. I would say from our standpoint, anything that is going to educate the public, that is going to make them aware of safe driving practices and to reduce risky driving behavior, we're in favor of. And we hear a lot of favorable feedback from the public about those messages. And so, I believe that they are positive and I think they are following the parameters and following that guidance as well as they can and it benefits Iowa.

Murphy: Bob, I'd be curious to get your perspective too. And I'm sure this is more an anecdotal than data driven question.

Conrad: One thing that does go on that board that gets people's attention is the fatality count. We just talked about it before we got on the air. It was 67 people already this year. And that is down from where we were last year, so that's a positive. But I think when people see that, I think when people look at that going by it, it makes it real. I can die on a roadway. When we think about the number one way most people die prematurely it's in a car crash, it's in something of that nature. So, I do see the value to that, having it up there. It works also when we have a crash on the road or something like that. Maybe it's a distracted driving crash and now we have to reroute traffic around. So, having that asset in place does help. I do understand that the jokes sometimes are taken both ways by different sides.

Hoffman: I can testify to that too. When I'm driving in a car and I see that message coupled with that number, awareness goes up and kind of speed goes down. I think that's important.

Conrad: Kind of like when you see our trooper car.

Hoffman: Yeah, that too.


Ta: Bob, since 2020 I feel like Iowa State Patrol has been regularly posting the speeds of some of the vehicles that you guys are pulling over in excess of 100 miles per hour. Why has there been an increase in excessive drivers? And is there something that we can do about it?

Conrad: I think we're getting better at putting it out there. We've had people for a long time that were going over 100 miles per hour and we're doing a better job of putting out publicly, using social media, we try different ways to do anything. Like Brett said, we try and make people aware. We have seen since COVID though an increase in those speeds, the 100 plus mile an hour and going on the Interstate. I work on a busy stretch of Interstate 80 over by Iowa City, 380 also through Cedar Rapids, which kind of compares in some ways to 235 in Des Moines. And so, those areas you do get people that have just, I guess maybe even lost some respect for others. And if you want to tie that to COVID or whatever. But it seems like we've gotten more individualistic when we're driving in a car. Again, that's just what I'm seeing. To put the data behind it, I probably don't have all of the numbers you would like to see. But we just see a lot of people that are concerned about themselves, concerned about getting themselves down the road, they're running late, they don't think about the safety of others. And that has kind of been lost in some areas.

Ta: Brett, are you guys seeing the same things too with the Traffic Bureau?

Tjepkes: Yeah, to Bob's point here, we did a market research project last year where we had focus groups, talked to a lot of Iowans about their driving habits and what would resonate with them, what would influence them to change their behavior? Something that was pretty eye opening for us is that people think they're good at being risky, people think they're good at being a fast driver and speeding, they think they're good being distracted. They think they have learned how to mitigate being impaired while they drive down the road. And that's absolutely not true. And so, these messages and getting that out in front of people is really necessary. These are very dangerous behaviors. There are laws in place for a reason and it's because speeding, impaired driving and hopefully with distracted we can get some tougher laws in place here in Iowa. But they are very risky driving behaviors and we see it every day. So, we definitely see that and by having these focus groups and talking with Iowans just all over the state, it was pretty surprising to us.

Murphy: But, was your focus group the one that had the quote from the person who said, I feel like I'm actually a better driver as a distracted driver because I'm focusing more?

Tjepkes: Yeah, yeah, there was all kinds of comments like that, pages of them and even somebody that speeds regularly, the complaint was it's the person going the speed limits that is more dangerous than I am. And so, there is a perception out there that is not accurate, it's not true and that's what we're always trying to get in front of and influence.

Hoffman: No such thing as a good distracted driver, no matter how confident we might feel individually.

Henderson: Motorcycles.

Murphy: Yeah, Iowa is one of just three states, as we understand, with no motorcycle helmet requirement. Bob, we'll start with you. Would you like to see that changed?

Conrad: I would. And I've covered enough motorcycle crashes where I've seen how head injuries are one of your most typical problems in a motorcycle crash. It's something that you see -- child restraint on a motorcycle, that's another part of it. Someone gets on there and had a small child on there, there's no helmets on either of them. And so yeah, a helmet law would be a great asset I think. We've asked for it before. There was a short time, if you go back far enough in the law, that there was about one year of a motorcycle helmet law in Iowa and then it went away fairly quickly.

Murphy: Luke, how about bicycles? Should bicyclists be required?

Hoffman: To wear a helmet?

Murphy: Yeah.

Hoffman: I certainly don't go out on the trail without wearing a helmet. I think about the amount of time when I'm on RAGBRAI, I'm always wearing that helmet, I think that's really important. I think public safety goes both ways to that extent. But I do think in terms of the common objections you see going back to hands free, it's freedom versus public safety, and I think that is a false choice that is being presented to us. I think what we need to be thinking about is how can we enhance freedom by improving public safety. I think that's the way we need to be thinking about this.

Ta: Luke, one of the things you guys are advocating for is a law that requires vehicles to change lanes to pass cyclists. Can you talk about that?

Hoffman: Yeah, change lanes to pass, one of our top legislative priorities, would love to see this. What it would do is protect cyclists and give us a little bit more room when you're passing a cyclist who is on the road. Actually, our organization was started because there was a bill that was introduced that would have banned all bicycles from the road. And so, looking to where we are today, trying to have a policy like this it's very common sense. All of us are a road user whether you're in a car or on a bike and all of us deserve to feel safe and have that peace of mind that we're just trying to get to where we're going whether it's for recreational purposes or whether it's because you've got to get to work.

Henderson: We have 30 seconds left, Brett, sorry to put you on the spot. But insurance companies are mining data from vehicles about how the driver reacts in certain situations. Will that stem the tide of distracted driving and speeding?

Tjepkes: Well, I think it will definitely help. One of the things that we hear from people is where is the data? Where is the data on distracted driving and phone use? And it's pretty difficult for law enforcement to be able to pinpoint that yes, that driver was on a phone, was distracted by the phone, that's what led to the crash. So, some recent reports that we've seen from telematics companies, they can measure the motion of a vehicle or of a phone when it's traveling down the road. It's not identifying information. They don't know it's Brett Tjepkes' phone, but they see these things moving up and down the road and they can tell how much it's being manipulated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration talks about distraction as something that is manually intensive and visually intensive and it takes your mind off of and your focus off of driving down the road. It's pretty obvious that a phone does all of those things to a pretty great degree. So, it's going to take more data.

Henderson: Well, one of the things I have to do is say we are out of time. Thank you, all three of you, for being here and sharing your views.

Thank you.

Appreciate your questions.

Thank you.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press online at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is a family-run business rooted in Iowa. We believe our employees are part of our family and we strive to improve their quality of life and the quality of lives within the communities we serve.


Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at