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Panel revises Georgia distracted driving bill to reduce proposed fines

A House committee Monday scaled back a proposal to raise fines for distracted driving. A substitute measure sponsored by Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, also would prohibit anyone under 18 from using an electronic device while driving. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
A House committee Monday scaled back a proposal to raise fines for distracted driving. A substitute measure sponsored by Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, also would prohibit anyone under 18 from using an electronic device while driving. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

A state House of Representatives committee Monday scaled back a proposal to double the fines for distracted driving in Georgia.

But the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee also added a provision to House Bill 113 that would prohibit anyone under 18 from using electronic devices while driving — a provision sought by traffic safety advocates.

HB 113 originally would have doubled the fines for distracted driving — the maximum fine for a first offense would have risen from $50 to $100 under the law. Second offenses would have doubled to $200, and third offenses to $300.

But the committee approved a substitute to the bill that would make the fine for distracted driving $25 to $100 at a judge’s discretion, regardless of how many previous citations an offender had. It also included the provision prohibiting drivers 17 or under from using electronic devices — essentially restoring a ban that existed under state law until two years ago.

Monday's vote showed lawmakers are divided on how to discourage motorists from handling their phones while driving — a practice that safety advocates say contributed to a spike in traffic fatalities in recent years.

Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the bill's sponsor, said the higher fines are needed to encourage motorists to put down their cellphones.

“We want to create deterrent and get people off their phones while they’re driving so they can focus on the road and have less crashes,” Carson told the committee.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, the sponsor of the substitute bill approved Monday, called Carson's proposed fines "over the top" and "overzealous."

“This isn’t anything but a revenue generator (for government),” Powell said of the original proposal.

Two years ago, Georgia prohibited motorists from handling their cellphones while driving. Traffic safety experts say that law has made Georgia roads safer, citing declining traffic fatalities and other statistics.

But many drivers are still watching their phones instead of the road. Carson proposed stiffer fines as an additional deterrent to the dangerous behavior. The approach has won the endorsement of several police, hospital, insurance and traffic safety groups, as well as some people who have lost loved ones to distracted driving.

"It pains me that I have to be here today to even appeal for a minor increase in the fines for distracted driving," Mary Carol Harsch told the committee. Her husband died while bicycling when he was struck by a distracted driver in Henry County in 2016.

Powell and other lawmakers expressed skepticism that raising fines would deter distracted driving. He cited broad compliance with Georgia’s seat belt law, though the fine for violations is just $15. And he worried about the ability of some people to pay higher fines.

“One of the things that concerns me is the idea that we can continue to be over the top when it comes to fines,” he said. “To me, it’s not justice.”

Powell's substitute bill also removes additional surcharges tacked on to base fines that Carson's original bill would have dedicated to the Georgia Trauma Trust Fund. Critics have noted such charges intended for specific causes sometimes are diverted to cover other state expenses.

The provision that would prohibit teen drivers from using electronic devices also could prove to be contentious. That prohibition was in place under Georgia’s former anti-texting law, which was replaced by the current distracted driving law in 2018.

Carson supports the idea of restoring the prohibition. But he said many elected officials do not — they want teens to be able to use GPS services to get directions while driving. Carson said including the provision could jeopardize the bill.

The committee approved Powell’s substitute bill by a vote of 7-4. It now goes to the Rules Committee, which will determine whether it gets a vote by the full House of Representatives.

LEGISLATIVE COVERAGE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the largest team covering Georgia's Legislature and offers expertise on issues that matter to taxpayers. Get complete daily coverage during the legislative session at www.ajc.com/politics.