Georgia’s distracted driving debate pits life vs. liberty

Mary Carol Harsh tells the story of her husband who was killed by a distracted driver

Mary Carol Harsch watched from the front row as state Rep. Ed Setzler extolled the benefits of talking on his cell phone while driving.

The Acworth Republican said it’s “extraordinarily productive” to make phone calls when he drives. He said a bill banning motorists from handling their phones would make criminals of otherwise law-abiding Georgians. And he worried about the government trampling personal liberty.

“I’m on my phone the entire time I’m on I-75.” Setzler said.

Harsch listened politely. But during public testimony, she told lawmakers her husband – a Henry County physician – was struck and killed by a motorist talking on his phone. She said his life was worth more than the convenience of talking while driving.

“I’m disturbed by the cavalier attitude I’ve seen from most of you about what you do in your cars,” Harsch told lawmakers. “How about just turn (the phone) off? It kills people. It killed a man who dedicated his life to saving people.”

That exchange set a somber tone for what has become one of the most emotional debates at the Gold Dome this year – one that sometimes seems to pit the fundamental values of life and liberty against each other.

The bill in question, House Bill 673 would prohibit drivers from holding their phones while driving. Drivers could still talk on their phones, but they'd have to use voice-activated technology.

Critics say the bill amounts to government overreach. The state already bans texting and driving and prohibits anyone 18 and under with a learner’s permit from using a wireless device while driving.

Supporters – including state and local law enforcement officials – say the hands-free bill is essential to stemming a rising tide of highway deaths.

Georgia traffic fatalities have risen by a third since 2014 – 1,550 people died last year. Safety advocates say our addiction to cell phones is a primary reason. We're watching our phones instead of the road, and hundreds of people are paying with their lives.

HB 673's sponsor, Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, likened the push to end distracted driving to previous campaigns to discourage drunken driving and encourage seat belt use.

“What I would love to do is start a cultural change, to where this kind of behavior is not acceptable anymore,” Carson said.

The bill passed the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly last month. But it's fate remains uncertain.

At a recent candidate forum, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Republican gubernatorial frontrunner and president of the Senate, said HB 673 faces an "uphill battle" in his chamber.

Other candidates cast it as a Big Brother-like intrusion. State Sen. Michael Williams of Cumming pledged to vote against the measure because drivers need to take “personal responsibility” for their actions. Businessman Clay Tippins said the “last thing I want to do is insert government” deeper into motorists’ daily commutes, while former state senator Hunter Hill said the crackdown defies his pledge for a more limited state government.

The bill’s supporters have cited fatality and other statistics to make their case. But the stories of those who have lost loved ones to distracted drivers have also had a powerful effect on the debate.

More than one legislator has shed a tear listening to those stories. But it’s unclear whether that will be enough to convince lawmakers to pry cell phones from motorists’ hands in an election year.

A rising death toll

Dr. John Harsch, 59, co-founded Southeastern Primary Care Specialists in Stockbridge and practiced medicine for more than 25 years. He and Mary Carol, his wife of 17 years, lived on a farm. She loved to ride horses; he was an avid bicyclist.

On April 6, 2016, while riding on Lower Woolsey Road in Hampton, he stopped to help a fellow cyclist who had fallen.

That's when he was struck by a 2002 Infiniti driven by Cleven Gerald Ingram of McDonough.

Ingram was talking on his phone. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor homicide by vehicle and improperly passing a bicycle. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail, two years of probation and 80 hours of community service. He also paid $1,140 in fines.

Harsch was transported to Grady Memorial Hospital.

“He died at Grady, right there in front of me,” Mary Carol told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They worked on him and worked on him. It wasn’t meant to be.”

Two years later, the tears still come easily when Harsch talks about her husband’s death.

“It’s a miracle to me how I’ve even made it this far,” she said. “I’ll never be the same.”

John Harsch was one of 1,561 people who died on Georgia roads and highways in 2016. Experts say several factors have contributed to the rising death toll. As the Great Recession ebbed, more people found jobs and drove to work. Cheap gas also has lured people back to the road.

But experts say the proliferation of smart phones and their distracting apps also are a significant factor. At any given time, about 7 percent of drivers are talking on their phones, according to Jonathan Rupp, co-director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at Emory University.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 3,477 people died in U.S. crashes in 2015 because of distracted driving in all its forms (including using phones, eating, talking and other distractions). Another 391,000 people were injured.

In 2010, with the perils of distracted driving becoming apparent, Georgia lawmakers banned texting while driving. But police say the ban is difficult to enforce.

It’s hard for officers to tell if someone is texting or just dialing a phone number, which is legal under the law. And Rupp said hand-held dialing is just as distracting as texting. As a result, safety advocates say, distracted driving and its consequences are getting worse.

Traffic accidents rose 36 percent in Georgia from 2014 to 2016. Fatalities spiked during the same period. Auto insurance premiums also rose – Georgia led the nation in insurance rate hikes in 2016.

Last year Carson led a House committee that studied distracted driving. In January, he unveiled HB 673, which would prohibit motorists from handling their phones but would allow them to use hands-free technology.

The bill also would double the fine for distracted driving to at least $300 and 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.

Fifteen states have adopted such laws. Thirteen of them saw substantial decreases in traffic fatalities within two years.

Emory’s Rupp said variations in enforcement and educational efforts may influence the effectiveness of such laws. But he said a hands-free requirement would be an improvement over Georgia’s current law – and over time would lead many people to drive more safely.

“The change in the law is our way of saying, ‘this is something we find socially unacceptable,’” he said.

Life vs. liberty

Not everyone is sold.

Rep. Setzler told the AJC HB 673 is an example of government overreach. He said there’s a fundamental difference between talking on the phone and texting or web surfing, and police should be able to tell the difference.

“To say that you can’t separate talking from texting is patently not true,” he said.

At the hearing Harsch attended, Setzler said the debate should be about “where is the most safety bang for our buck vs. where are we going to tread on the liberty interest of the people.” He touted the “extraordinary value to talking and communicating on my device while driving.”

“We’re weighing not just a liberty interest,” he said. “We’re weighing a tremendous personal interest.”

The bill’s supporters say driving is a heavily regulated privilege – not a right – and personal liberty ends where it infringes on public safety.

“(Setzler) does not live in reality,” Harsch said. “God forbid that anything ever happens to him or any of his children.”

After her husband’s death, Harsch became an advocate for bicycle safety, which is how she wound up confronting Setzler at the hearing on HB 673. And he wasn’t the last lawmaker to have a run-in with Harsch.

Last month, Harsch got a lesson in legislative gamesmanship from Rep. Betty Price, R-Roswell, who voted against the bill in a House committee. That surprised Harsch, because Price had sponsored a similar measure last year.

Harsch asked Price about her vote in an elevator at the Capitol. In an exchange captured on video and aired on Channel 2 Action News, Price said it was a "protest vote" to express displeasure over the fact that her own bill failed to gain support.

“I’m just causing trouble,” Price said in the video. “I’m not philosophically opposed.”

Harsch was stunned by Price’s apparent spite.

“Who can look a widow in the eye and say you were just there to cause trouble?” she said. “I was dumbfounded.”

Price later voted for the bill when it passed the House and urged her colleagues to support it. She declined to speak with the AJC about her chat with Harsch.

Uncertain fate

On Crossover Day – the day bills must pass one house of the General Assembly to remain alive – Harsch spent 14 hours at the Gold Dome. She sat in the House gallery with others who had lost loved ones to distracted driving, waiting to see if the House of Representatives would approve HB 673.

Finally, at 10:21 p.m., the House took up the bill. Rep. Carson introduced some of the victims’ family members who had come to watch.

He introduced Kathy Clark, whose daughter Emily was one of five Georgia Southern University nursing students who died in a collision with a truck in 2015. The truck driver admitted he was texting prior to the accident, but denied he was using his phone at the time of the crash.

He introduced Sharon Pitman, the mother of Catherine “McKay” Pittman, one of the other nursing students who perished. He introduced Jodi Rigby, whose 5-year-old son Glenn was killed by a driver talking on the phone in 2005. And he introduced Harsch.

Lawmakers rose and turned their eyes to the gallery in silent tribute.

They debated the bill for an hour. In emotional testimony, Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, talked of losing his teenage daughter to a distracted driver. He nodded to the gallery.

“They want to know that their loss has a purpose,” Lumsden said. “They want to know that their loss helps bring about a change that will prevent others from having the kind of floss that they’re facing.”

Setzler gave it his best shot. He also gestured to the gallery.

“We’ve got before us today people who have suffered tremendous loss,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do or say to bring them back.

Setzler urged his colleagues to focus on the problem of texting instead of talking on the phone. He disputed the contention that the texting ban is unenforceable.

To make his point, he held a phone to his ear to show what talking looks like, then put it down toward his lap to show what texting looks like.

“The fact is, this (phone to ear, head up) is fundamentally different from this (face down),” Setzler said. “Let’s not make Georgians lawbreakers for simply having a phone to their ear.”

The House passed HB 673 by a vote of 151 to 20. Outside the gallery, the onlookers embraced each other, some of them weeping.

Later, Setzler acknowledged the power of those watching from the gallery.

“We owe it to Georgians to get the details right, not to be swayed by emotion,” he told the AJC.

HB 673 is now pending in the Senate. A Judiciary Committee vote likely will come next week.

Harsch said testifying about her loss and watching the legislative process unfold has been exhausting. But she remains optimistic the bill will pass.

“It’s renewed my faith. We changed people’s minds, changed legislators’ minds with our stories,” she said. “I won’t give up until something changes.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report


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