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DES MOINES, Iowa
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and top transportation officials announced a yearlong education campaign Wednesday to warn drivers of a new law banning texting on the highway and requiring young drivers to buckle up.
The officials gathered on the steps of the Statehouse to mark a new law going into force on Thursday that bans drivers from sending text messages while on the highway and bars drivers under 18 from using cell phones at all.
"Distracted driving means dangerous driving," said Nancy Richardson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation.
A companion law requires back-seat passengers under 18 to wear seat belts.
While the texting ban goes on the books Thursday, police will issue only warning tickets for the first year and officials plan to use that year to focus on educating drivers.
"This new law is not about writing tickets, it is about saving lives," said Department of Public Safety Director Gene Meyer. "While law enforcement will enforce the new law, the focus is on changing behavior."
He said the new law reflects that driving is a complex task that requires the full attention of a motorist.
"Getting to your destination safely is always the most important task for every driver," said Meyer.
The campaign dubbed "It can wait," urges motorists to "buckle up and don't text and drive." It will include print, radio and television commercials, highway signs and social networking sites like Facebook.
It is designed to mirror one officials conducted when the state's seat belt law went on the books. For the first year, police could issue only warning tickets while officials conducted a public-relations campaign to educate motorists about the new law.
Once police begin enforcing the texting law, violators face a $30 fine, and that gets larger if officials think that texting led to an accident or injury.
"We know that distracted driving is an important challenge for Iowa drivers because last year more than 6,000 people nationally died in accidents related to it," Culver said. "Law enforcement will be offering warnings this year, but every Iowa driver should know there are real penalties in this law because keeping drivers safe on the roads is a priority of this administration."
Culver noted that 28 other states have enacted some form of ban on sending text messages while driving.
The governor signed the texting ban into law shortly after this year's Legislature adjourned, but like many new laws it goes on the books with the beginning of the state's new fiscal year on Thursday.
Culver noted that studies have shown that drivers who are distracted by cell phone or texting are more dangerous than drunk drivers, and he said the new law reflects that danger.
"It's not only dangerous, but now it's the law," said Culver.