Georgia distracted driving bill gains new momentum

A bill that would crack down on distracted driving in Georgia has gained new momentum, winning key endorsements and clearing a hurdle in the state Senate.

In an interview that aired Wednesday night, Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed House Bill 673, which would prohibit motorists from handling cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle followed suit Thursday afternoon, after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a revised version of the bill.

The bill now goes to the Rules Committee, which would decide if and when the bill gets a vote by the full Senate.

Such a vote seemed in doubt just two weeks ago, when Cagle – who presides over the Senate – said the bill faced an "uphill battle" during a forum for Republican gubernatorial candidates. Other candidates at the forum said the bill was an example of government overreach.

Deal’s endorsement, which came during an interview on the public affairs program “Lawmakers,” may have given the bill a boost.

“I do think it is a subject that – if we don’t get it this year – I think we’ll need to see it as soon as possible in the next few sessions,” Deal said during the interview. “If it comes to me, and there are no serious problems associated with it, I would sign it, because law enforcement is telling me this is a needed step in Georgia safety.”

After Thursday’s committee vote, Cagle issued his own endorsement. He applauded the committee’s “deliberative work in advancing a bill that will make our roads safer, while limiting government overreach.”

“While strong public safety laws are essential, we must also protect against burdensome laws that are unenforceable and attempt to restrict simple technologies like smart watches,” Cagle said. “I look forward to considering this bill before the full Senate.”

HB 673 would require motorists to use hands-free technology if they talk or text on their phones. It also would prohibit drivers from watching movies or otherwise fiddling with their gadgets.

Georgia already prohibits anyone 18 or younger with a learner’s permit from using a wireless device while driving. And it bans anyone from texting while driving.

Police say the texting ban is difficult to enforce because it’s hard to tell whether a driver is texting or dialing a phone call, which is permitted under the law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee made some changes to the bill Thursday.

As it passed the House of Representative, it would have imposed a minimum fine of $300 for a violation. Under the Senate version, the fine would be $75 for a first offense, $150 for a second offense and $300 for a third offense within two years.

The committee also reduced the number of points that would be assessed against a driver’s license. And it exempted smart watches from the ban.

"We didn't want to be overly punitive from the outset," said Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, the committee chairman. "We want to give people a chance to learn the law and change their behaviors."

Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the bill's sponsor, said he was fine with the changes. So were other supporters who attended Thursday's hearing. They included the relatives of people who have lost their lives in distracted-driving accidents.

Mary Carol Harsch lost her husband John to a distracted driver two years ago. She wiped away tears and exchanged hugs with other supporters after Thursday's vote.

“It was a good day,” Harsch said.

-- Reporter Greg Bluestein contributed to this report

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