Guest Op-Ed: Rep John Carson On Distracted Driving Bill

The following is a guest Op-Ed by Representative John Carson of Cobb County:

Changing the Culture of Distracted Driving Through House Bill 113

Due to the alarming increase of smartphone use and traffic fatalities, the Georgia General Assembly passed the Hands-Free Georgia Act in 2018, which was signed into law later that year by former Governor Nathan Deal.

The Hands-Free Georgia Act made it illegal for drivers to hold or support a cell phone or electronic telecommunications device while driving in our state. Georgia became the sixteenth state in the U.S. to enact such a law.

Traffic fatalities in Georgia decreased by 2.25 percent in 2018, which was the first significant decrease in more than 10 years. Traffic fatalities then decreased another 4.25 percent in 2019, and these declines were achieved despite our state’s increasing population and expanding economy.

Although we have made progress to reduce distracted driving in Georgia, we all continue to see motorists engaging in this dangerous driving behavior on our roadways. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), texting and driving is six times more likely to cause a crash than drunk driving.

I, along with other lawmakers, have heard from law enforcement officers who have expressed that they simply do not have the personnel and resources to stop every infraction. There simply must be more deterrent to discourage this behavior, and we must make it culturally and socially unacceptable on our roads, like DUIs.

In January, I reintroduced House Bill 113 to impose higher fines for distracted driving offenses.  First-time offenses would range from $50 to $100, a second offense would range from $100 to $200, and a third offense would range from $150 to $300. Additionally, HB 113 would further increase fines for distracted driving offenses committed within school or construction zones, and it would remove the state’s first-time offense waiver.

Our current $50 first-time fine is one of the lowest in the U.S., and this legislation would dedicate revenue collected from these new fines to the Georgia Trauma Trust Fund, thus dealing directly with the grave consequences of the problem which they are meant to deter.

Instead of increasing fines, I have been asked to consider other alternatives, such as increasing driver awareness and advocacy; requiring a driver education course; and requiring community service. However, AAA and a Georgia College of Public Health report stated that approximately 98 to 99 percent of Georgia’s drivers are already aware of the law.

Additionally, required education courses or community services could be more difficult for the courts to track, or they could be waived by judges, leaving less accountability for breaking the law. Conversely, AAA and NHTSA have both published studies showing that an increase in fines results in a decrease in traffic misdemeanor behavior.

We realize we are jeopardizing our own safety, the safety of our passengers, as well as the safety of other drivers by engaging in this behavior. We rationalize it to ourselves by saying, “It’s just a quick text,” “Nothing has happened before – nothing will happen now,” or “I’m good at multitasking – I can keep one eye on the road.”  Every driver at fault in these deadly crashes may have said the very same thing.

The facts are simple: using a cell phone while driving is a hazardous habit that needs to be broken, and higher fines are an effective deterrent to that habit.  Let’s close the loopholes in the law, change our culture towards this driving behavior and continue to save lives. 

The hands-free update bill, HB 113, will be considered by the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee on Monday, February 24, 2020, at the State Capitol. Distracted driving crash victims’ families will be in attendance. Please contact your state legislators and ask them to support legislation to strengthen Georgia’s hands-free law. It could very well prevent an accident or save the lives of your loved ones. 

Representative John Carson represents the citizens of District 46, which includes portions of Cherokee and Cobb counties. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 2011 and currently serves as Vice Chairman of the Transportation, Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications and Ways & Means committees and Secretary of the Insurance Committee. He also serves on the Intragovernmental Coordination, MARTOC and Rules committees. He also serves as an Ex-Officio member on the Appropriations committee.

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