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New laws take effect statewide today

A slew of new laws will hit the books in Iowa today, many limiting activities within motor vehicles.

The state’s ban on texting while driving heads the list of new regulations.

Under the ban, all Iowa drivers are prohibited from reading or sending e-mails and text messages from any hand-held electronic device while operating a motor vehicle. However, a few exceptions exist for certain truck and bus drivers, emergency personnel and health-care professionals, who could utilize the messages while on duty.

Additionally, messages pertaining to safety information like emergency, traffic or weather alerts could be read by any adult driver, and messages can be sent or read if a driver first pulls to the side of the road or uses a hands-free device.

For adult drivers — those with a full driver’s license — making phone calls while behind the wheel will continue to be legal. But, this isn’t the case for Iowa’s younger motorists.

Drivers with a restricted, graduated or minor-school license are barred from using hand-held electronic devices while driving for any reason, unless they first pull their vehicle to the side of the road.

While the state’s younger drivers can be stopped by law enforcement for violating this ban, adults must commit a separate violation to be cited for texting while driving because the charge is a secondary offense.

Law-enforcement officials cannot confiscate a driver’s phone, but phone records may be subpoenaed if an accident occurs as a result of the distracted driving.

In an effort to first educate the state’s drivers about the new law, law enforcement will only be issuing warnings for the law’s first year of existence. Starting July 1, 2011, violating the texting law becomes a non-moving violation that carries a $30 fine.

Penalties for causing an injury or death as a result of an accident caused by texting or e-mailing increase to fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 and a driver’s license suspension of 90 to 180 days.

Seat belts

Another change affecting how Iowans travel is a tweak to the state’s seat-belt requirements.

Under the old state law, children under the age of 11 were required to use a seat belt or safety seat regardless of their position in a vehicle. Beginning today, that age limit is increased to 18.

The seat-belt law excludes buses, motorcycles, peace officers on official duty, emergency vehicles and vehicles manufactured on or before 1965. Also, motor homes are exempt from the law unless a child is seated directly to the driver’s right.

If a child is in the vehicle’s back seat and no seat belt is available because they are being used by other occupants, a violation of the law does not occur.

A driver who transports a passenger under the age of 14 may be charged with a simple misdemeanor if that child is found not wearing a seat belt, but passengers 14 or older can be cited instead of the driver.

This fine, along with many others, is increasing today. Penalties for failure to abide by the seat-belt law jumped from $25 to $50. Other increases include fines for open container, no driver’s license, passing a school bus and illegally parking in a handicap zone moving from $100 to $200, traffic signal violation rising to $100 from $35 and failure to use a child restraint increased from $25 to $100. Fines for speeding are also moved up to a minimum of $87, including court costs, from $73.50. Court costs also increased from $60 to $70 for certain offenses.

Other changes taking effect today include:

• Military — Separate bills allow for employees who leave work to accompany their spouse on a military assignment to receive unemployment benefits, and employers of 50 or more people must give veterans an excused day off work (paid or unpaid) on Veteran’s Day.

• Gun ban — Iowans who are subject to a protective order or who have been convicted of domestic violence must relinquish their guns, or sell them.

• Weight limits —  Changes the maximum gross weight allowed to be carried on a commercial motor vehicle, other than a special truck, on noninterstate highways to 90,000 pounds on six axles and 96,000 pounds on seven axles.

• Obscene materials — The definition of child abuse now includes allowing a child to access obscene material or disseminating or exhibiting such material to a child.

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