Editorial: Hit distracted drivers' wallets

Last updated: 04-07-2020

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Editorial: Hit distracted drivers' wallets

Apparently a Georgia lawmaker didn’t smile for a citizen’s camera. The lawmaker had even less to smile about when a TV news camera crew tracked him down.

Before reading further, brace yourself for irony, and bear in mind the Georgia General Assembly is now considering a bill that would toughen penalties for distracted driving.

Atlanta’s Fox affiliate received video footage from a motorist purportedly showing Rep. Bill Werkheiser of Glennville fiddling with his phone while driving. The motorist alleges Rep. Werkheiser’s car cut him off, causing him to hydroplane, hit the center median and jerk back on the road.

The lawmaker - who by the way sits on the House Public Safety Committee - told Fox 5 he didn’t text while driving, and "generally” uses his phone “for directions."

Without all the facts we don’t know who’s right. But we know what’s right - imposing tougher penalties.

Rep. John Carson is sponsoring House Bill 113, which proposes doubling the fines for the dangerous drivers who are too busy gawking at their phones to actually keep their eyes on the road.

If passed, the new fines would be - at a judge’s discretion - up to $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for third and subsequent offenses.

That sounds fair - almost nondescript, when you include it with all the other $100 fines that state law requires for misdemeanor violations.

But a few critics insist $100 is too much to impose on a driver who apparently can also afford to operate both a car and a phone.

Rep. Alan Powell has pointed out that Georgia’s seat belt law threatens only a $15 fine, and in 2017 the law boasted a 96% compliance rate.

True. But how many people know the fine is that low? More likely people were shaken into compliance by the state’s highly-effective “Click It or Ticket” campaign. Maybe the current distracted-driving law should be accompanied by a similarly catchy and persuasive - and equally massive - marketing effort. Distracted driving should carry the same social stigma as drunken driving.

Maybe then the state would see a steep drop in those types of accidents. After the current law went into effect last year, such incidents have dropped 7%. Rep. Carson called that figure “fantastic” in a committee meeting. It’s certainly an encouraging start, but steeper fines would accomplish even better results.

The Georgia Department of Transportation recently sponsored a contest asking entrants to write amusing safety messages to place on those roadside digital highway signs. In the distracted driving category, whimsical entries included “You look great but the selfie can wait,” and “No one wants to see traffic on Snapchat, Brenda.”

We appreciate the humor. But in terms of real prevention, such a mild charm offensive isn’t going to work. Neither is the current penalty structure for distracted driving.

If you want to stop stubborn motorists from endangering everyone else’s lives on the road, asking “pretty please with sugar on top” won’t cut it. You have to virtually grab these people by the lapels and shake them until they get the message.

So start shaking. Pass Rep. Carson’s bill and ratchet up the fines.


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