Iowa's governor cited the death of a young Riceville cyclist killed by a texting driver as he called for "real change" in laws for distracted and impaired drivers and protections for bicyclists on the road.
During his Condition of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Terry Branstad read part of a note sent by the parents of 20-year-old Grace Harken's parents, who was killed in July 2015 as she cycled home from work on a county road. The driver, Courtney Lynn Johnson, 24, admitted she was texting when she hit Harken from behind.
“Grace would have forgiven the driver and moved forward," Branstad read from the parents' note. "That is what we have chosen to do. But we miss her so.”
The court fined Johnson $1,000 and suspended her license for 180 days, the current maximum sentence for the misdemeanor of texting while driving resulting in a death. Eleven people died in Iowa while riding bicycles in 2016, including nine cyclists who were struck by motor vehicles. It was the highest number of cycling fatalities in the state in a decade.
"Grace Harken’s life was tragically ended way too early. Modern technologies should come with new responsibilities," Branstad said. "I ask that all Iowans join the Iowa law-enforcement community, first responders, the League of Cities, all the major cellphone carriers, the insurance industry, and the medical community in demanding real change in the laws for distracted and impaired drivers."
The governor's budget calls for instituting "more appropriate" and "updated" penalties for risky driving behavior and programs to "provide better protections for bicyclists on Iowa roads." Ben Hammes, a spokesman for the governor, said the office is working on a draft of a bill to address these issues but declined to go into further detail.
"With a 275 percent increase from 2015 to 2016 in bicycle fatalities, we've reached critical levels. It's good the governor noticed and is keeping track of this. Hopefully, we end up with good policy moving forward," said Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.
The coalition also expects to see a legislation requiring cars change lanes when passing cyclists to resurface this session. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate last year but died in the Republican-controlled House. This year, Republicans control both chambers, but Wyatt believes increased cycling deaths has changed minds.