Two years ago Georgia prohibited motorists from handling their cellphones while driving. But many drivers aren’t getting the message. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia lawmaker wants tougher distracted driving fines

Two years after prohibiting motorists from handling their phones while driving, the General Assembly will consider tougher fines and other measures to crack down on distracted driving.

State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the sponsor of 2018’s Hands-Free Georgia Act, announced Thursday that he will propose raising the fine for a first offense from $50 to as much as $100. Fines for a second offense would range from $100 to $200, and third offenses would cost $150 to $300.

Carson also wants to increase the fines for distracted driving offenses within school and construction zones, and remove a provision that allows first-time offenders to have their ticket dismissed if they show a receipt in court for hands-free technology.

If the bill passes, Georgia motorists will have had two years to get used to the hands-free requirement. Carson said it’s time to increase the penalties to deter distracted driving, which traffic safety experts say contributes to highway deaths and injuries.

“People are still using their phone” while driving, Carson said, “because there’s not much deterrent.”

The Hands-Free Georgia Act prohibits drivers from holding or supporting, with any part of their body, a wireless telecommunications device or stand-alone electronic device. It also prohibits writing or reading text messages, watching videos and other distracting behaviors (you can find more details about what’s allowed and what’s not here).

Critics decried the law as government overreach. Safety advocates said it would help curtail traffic fatalities, which rose by one-third in Georgia from 2014 to 2016 before leveling off the following year.

Georgia traffic fatalities fell 2.2% to 1,515 in 2018, and preliminary statistics show they fell an additional 4% last year. Carson said the gains came despite a growing economy and population, and the rise of electric scooters.

The Georgia State Patrol initially used warning tickets to educate motorists, but it later wrote tens of thousands of citations. Still, the message isn’t sinking in with many drivers, who can still be seen with their eyes glued to their phones.

That’s why Carson said it’s time to increase the fines and eliminate the provision allowing first-time offenders off the hook if they buy hands-free technology.

“We’re hearing from public safety and other groups that there has to be more deterrent,” Carson said. “They just can’t make that many (traffic) stops. They can’t stop everybody who is not looking at the road.”

Carson expects to unveil his bill at a House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee meeting Feb. 3.

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