Georgia Senate passes distracted driving bill

House Bill 673 now returns to the House of Representatives, which passed a slightly different version of the bill.

House Bill 673 now returns to the House of Representatives, which passed a slightly different version of the bill.

A bill designed to crack down on distracted driving in Georgia cleared a major hurdle Tuesday night.

By a vote of 55 to 0, the Senate approved House Bill 673, which would require motorists to use hands-free cell phone technology while driving.

But the debate isn’t over. The Senate amended the bill to lower the proposed fines for violating the law. Under the amended version, the fines would be $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense and $150 for a third offense, down from $75, $150 and $300, respectively, in the most recent version.

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Senators also defeated a proposal to make distracted driving a secondary offense – meaning officers could not cite a driver for holding their cell phone unless they observed another offense.

The bill must now return to the House, which passed a slightly different version by a wide margin.

Georgia already prohibits anyone 18 and under with a learner’s permit from using wireless devices while driving. It also prohibits anyone from texting while driving.

Law enforcement officials say the existing texting ban is unenforceable because it’s hard to determine whether a driver is texting or dialing on the phone, which is allowed under current law.

Supporters say HB 673 is needed to stem a rising tide of fatalities on Georgia highways – 1,550 people died last year, up a third from 2014. Safety advocates say distracted driving is a major contributor – our eyes are glued to our phones, instead of the road in front of us.

"We have a public safety emergency, I believe, when it comes to the operation of motor vehicles," Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, said during the debate.

Opponents have called the bill an example of government overreach that could make criminals of otherwise law-abiding Georgians. They say police can do a better job of enforcing the existing texting ban.

The bill appeared to be in trouble after Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said it faced an "uphill battle" in the Senate. But Cagle and Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed the bill last week, giving it a major boost.