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.
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