Georgia bill spurs debate over higher fines for distracted driving

Last updated: 04-07-2020

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Georgia bill spurs debate over higher fines for distracted driving

But plenty of drivers are still watching their phones instead of the road, endangering themselves and others. Now state lawmakers may try another tactic to pry the phones from motorists’ hands: doubling the fines for distracted driving.

House Bill 113 would raise the maximum fine for a first offense from $50 to $100. The top fine for a second offense would double to $200, and a third offense to $300. For those caught in school or highway construction zones, the fines would double again.

Safety advocates say stiffer fines are needed to discourage a behavior that experts say contributed to a spike in traffic deaths in Georgia and across the country.

“We are trying to change the behavior and change the culture,” said Jennifer Smith, the president of Stopdistractions.org, a group that lobbies for tougher traffic laws. “Hopefully, we’ll get to the point where police aren’t writing tickets because people aren’t doing it anymore.”

Others say the fines are already too high and shouldn’t be raised. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said compliance with the law will improve over time without steep fines that can become a burden to low-income people.

“The bill we passed a couple of years ago was overkill,” Powell said. “Now we’re coming back with another one that’s overkill.”

Distracted driving is nothing new. Motorists have been eating, talking and fiddling with the radio for decades.

But experts say the rise of smartphones has made the problem worse. The devices are loaded with apps designed to grab our attention and not let go. And many people can’t — even when they’re traveling at 65 mph.

Sometimes the behavior is annoying or contributes to traffic congestion — think about the guy texting in front of you when the traffic light turns green. Other times, the consequences are deadly.

From 2014 to 2016, traffic fatalities in Georgia rose by one-third before declining slightly to 1,549 in 2017. Traffic safety experts said distracted driving was a major contributing factor.

In response, the General Assembly passed the Hands-Free Georgia Act in 2018. Among other things, the law prohibits motorists from handling their phones or other electronic devices while driving. Motorists can still talk or text if they use hands-free technology.

The law also set the existing fines. In addition, a first offense costs a motorist one point on his or her driver’s license. A second offense costs two points, and a third offense costs three points. Drivers who accumulate 15 points in a 24-month period lose their license.

Traffic safety experts say the law has made a difference.

Traffic fatalities fell 2.2% to 1,515 in 2018. And though 2019 statistics are incomplete, preliminary data indicates fatalities fell again last year. Traffic accidents involving injuries and the frequency of collision insurance claims also have fallen under the law.

But you can still see plenty of people handling their phones while driving. Just ask Trooper Emily Beaulieu of the Georgia State Patrol. During a recent rush hour on the Downtown Connector, she spotted a dozen people breaking the law in just half an hour.

“I look for people looking down at their lap for an extended period of time or someone having trouble maintaining their lane,” Beaulieu said as she cruised the highway.

But she’s seen worse — like the guy watching YouTube videos on his phone, which he held in place on his steering wheel. Or the people chatting on FaceTime during their commutes.

Beaulieu said she pulls over 30 to 40 motorists a month for distracted driving. She doesn’t always issue a citation. But she and other troopers write plenty of tickets.

From July 2018, when the distracted driving law took effect, through the end of 2019, the Georgia State Patrol issued more than 39,000 citations. That doesn’t count tickets issued by local police.

State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, sponsored the Hands-Free Georgia Act as well as the new bill. He said the citations have helped, but they haven’t been enough to get many drivers to put their phones down.

“Law enforcement has said flat-out we have got to have more of a deterrent,” Carson said. “They can’t possibly pull over all of these people who are violating the law.”

Powell, the state representative, believes behavior can be changed without higher fines. He cited Georgia’ seat belt law, which requires adults in the front seats to be restrained. Violations cost just $15, but a federal study showed 96% compliance with the law in 2017.

Powell believes the proposal to raise distracted driving fines is partly an effort to increase government revenue — a suspicion heightened by a provision in HB 113 that would allow additional fees and penalties to be tacked onto the base fines. Though typically referred to as “court costs,” the money goes to the state, not to local courts.

Carson’s bill seeks to designate the additional fees for the Georgia Trauma Trust Fund, which helps pay for emergency medical services. But at a recent hearing, skeptics noted that fees and fines intended for a particular purpose often are spent on other purposes.

With the addition of such fees, Powell said a $100 fine could quickly become $150, a $200 fine could become $300 and a $300 fine could become $450.

“Most of us can pay a fine,” Powell said. “But we’ve got a tremendous number of folks that can’t afford that.”

Supporters say the intent of the bill is not to raise money, it’s to deter dangerous behavior. And they say the costs of the fines and fees pale in comparison to the costs of traffic accidents.

Carson cited insurance industry statistics showing the average cost of traffic accidents is close to $5,000 per vehicle. When injuries are involved, medical costs add an average of $19,000.

“Now how big is that $100 fine?” Carson said.

Smith, the traffic safety advocate, noted that the fine for violating the state’s old anti-texting law — replaced by the Hands-Free Georgia Act — was $150. And she said most states with similar distracted driving laws have higher fines than Georgia currently charges.

As for the affordability of the proposed fines, Smith said: “There’s a simple fix to that. Don’t break the law.”

HB 113 is pending in the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. Powell plans to introduce an amendment setting the fines at $25 to $100 for each offense, at a judge’s discretion.

The committee is expected to take up the bill and amendments next week.

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