As she dropped off her 13-year-old son, Cheri Madliak told him she loved him and asked him to call when he was ready for a ride home.
The call never came. Parker Madliak decided to walk home from his friend’s house. Hours later, on that dark February evening in 2015, police would find his body near Welcome Sargent Road in Newnan. He had been struck by a teenager who was texting while driving.
Last Monday, Madliak choked back tears as she urged the state House Study Committee on Distracted Driving to do something to help stem an epidemic that has cost thousands of lives in Georgia and across the nation.
“I just hope all of this goes somewhere,” she told the representatives.
Tales like Madliak’s have been a regular feature of the committee’s hearings in recent months, and they have made an impression. Though past efforts to strengthen Georgia’s distracted driving laws have faltered, some believe the General Assembly may be willing to pry cell phones from the hands of motorists as the highway death toll rises.
“This is a major public health issue,” said state Rep. Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, a committee member. “We’ve got to do something to eliminating distractions.”
Highways fatalities rose 14 percent across the nation from 2014-16, a recent report by the National Safety Council found. Last year, more than 40,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents, making 2016 the deadliest year on the nation’s roads since 2007.
Highway deaths in Georgia rose by a third during the same period. Last year, 1,561 people died on Georgia highways. Another 1,268 have died so far this year, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
It’s difficult to say how many of those deaths were caused by people fiddling with their phones when they should have been paying attention to driving. People often don’t admit to such behavior when they’ve been in an accident, making it hard to pinpoint the cause unless they’re caught in the act.
But researchers have little doubt our addiction to cell phones is a big contributor to rising highways deaths. Last year, the state Department of Driver Services processed 3,866 citations for using phones while driving – up more than 30 percent from 2014.
Georgia prohibits adults from texting while driving and bars anyone under 18 with a learner’s permit from using a wireless device while driving. But police and prosecutors say the laws are hard to enforce.
Officers often can’t tell if someone is texting or dialing a phone number, which is permitted under current law. That makes it hard to prove a violation in court.
“It’s confusing, and it’s very difficult to make a case,” Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman told the House committee Monday. “The last thing we want to do is stop you and write you a ticket for something that’s legal.”
Another problem: Fines for violations are just $150. Other serious driving offenses – like driving under the influence – can cost up to $1,000 and a year in jail. Judges also can sentence offenders to defensive driving classes for other violations – but not for texting.
The House distracted driving committee has discussed raising the fines for violations. It’s also discussed requiring drivers to use hands-free phone devices, which could eliminate guesswork by police and make it easier to enforce the law.
“We need clear and defined rules so we can make good cases,” Freeman said.
Research suggests hands-free laws have not made a big difference in some states – perhaps because drivers remain distracted by other things. Some groups – like the National Safety Council – support laws banning all use of phones while driving.
The committee plans to draft recommendations by the end of the year, with the idea of introducing legislation in the upcoming session.
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