Traffic fatalities rose by one-third in Georgia from 2014 to 2016. Experts say distracted driving is a leading cause. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Distracted driving legislation advances in Georgia

Legislation designed to pry cellphones from the hands of motorists cleared a significant hurdle Wednesday in the General Assembly.

House Bill 673 would require drivers to use hands-free cellphone technology and would double the fine for distracted driving to at least $300. It also would increase the penalty from one point assessed against a driver’s license to up to six points for repeat offenders. Drivers with 15 points in a 24-month period lose their license.

Lawmakers rejected a similar law last year, but are trying again.

The House Transportation Committee approved the measure Wednesday. Safety advocates hailed the bill as necessary to stem rising fatalities on Georgia highways.

“They did what they had to do to keep people safe on our highways,” said Chattahoochee Hills resident Mary Carol Harsch, whose husband died in 2016 after he was struck by a distracted driver while bicycling.

But the bill faces skepticism from lawmakers who say it would criminalize an act — talking on a phone while driving — that Georgians do every day.

“Speaking for millions of people in Georgia, we should not be making this unlawful,” state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, said while holding a phone to his ear.

Traffic fatalities in Georgia rose by one-third from 2014 to 2016 before falling slightly last year to 1,534. Increases in rear-end collisions, single-car crashes and crashes involving people ages 15-25 suggest distracted driving is a major contributing factor, safety advocates say. They say drivers’ eyes are glued to their cellphones instead of the road.

Georgia already bans anyone under age 18 with a learner’s permit from using a wireless device while driving. The state also prohibits adults from texting while driving.

But police say the “no texting” law is unenforceable. They say it’s difficult to tell whether a driver is texting or dialing a phone call — which is permitted under the law.

HB 673 would prohibit anyone — regardless of age — from handling a phone or other wireless device while driving. Drivers could still use hands-free technology to make phone calls. Advocates say that would eliminate the ambiguity that makes it hard to enforce distracted driving laws — any handling of a wireless device while driving would be prohibited.

Fifteen states have enacted laws requiring drivers to use hands-free technology. Twelve of them saw decreased traffic fatalities in the two years after the laws were adopted.

Setzler said the bill should focus on the greater danger of texting while driving, not on the safer behavior of holding a phone while talking and driving. State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the bill’s sponsor, responded that “safer” isn’t “safe.”

“We don’t just want to pass a regulation. We want to start a culture change,” said Carson, who sponsored the bill after leading a committee that studied distracted driving for months. “This is the DUI issue of our generation.”

The bill’s prospects are uncertain. It must still pass the full House as well as the Senate. Past efforts to require motorists to use hands-free technology have gone nowhere.

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