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Drivers can’t be on cellphones under bill that passed House committee

ATLANTA — With Georgia having experienced a spike in both fatal crashes and auto insurance premiums, legislators advanced a proposal to make it illegal to hold a cellphone while driving.

By a non-unanimous voice vote, a House committee on Wednesday voted in favor of House Bill 673 by Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, to crack down on distracted driving. It now awaits House debate.

In Georgia, it is illegal to text behind the wheel, but drivers are currently allowed to dial and hold their phone. Law enforcement officers have testified that they often cannot tell whether a driver is texting or merely dialing, making it difficult to enforce the law.

“We just did a distracted driving detail (earlier this week) because that’s one of our leading contributing factors to crashes here in the cities,” said Sgt. Kevin Holbrook, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department.

Many distracted-driving crashes in the city are fender benders, but Holbrook noted that when investigating single-vehicle crashes with fatalities officers often find a mobile phone lodged in the dashboard or in a footwell.

And at the moment, law enforcement has a difficult time stopping people from using their phones while driving.

“Right now, the texting-and-driving law, almost everybody acknowledges, is essentially unenforceable,” said Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta. “I believe this (bill) will be enforceable.”

The new law would be clear: Holding a phone in the hand while driving is illegal unless the driver is an on-duty law enforcement officer, a public utility employee or contractor responding to an emergency or a member of the public calling 911.

Under Carson’s measure, drivers would still be allowed to use GPS navigation and talk via a hands-free device. Violators would be fined at least $300.

“It would definitely help clear things up for us in law enforcement,” Holbrook said. “When we do stop an individual, as of right now they can have their phone in their hand. They can be doing multiple things, from their GPS to changing a song. It’s very difficult for us to enforce texting-while-driving (laws).”

Using a hand-held cellphone while driving has been banned in 15 states, as well as the District of Columbia.

According to the National Safety Council, more than 1,500 people died in auto crashes in Georgia in 2016, a 34.5 percent rise from 2014. Based on the significant decrease in traffic fatalities that other states have experienced after passing similar hands-free laws, Carson told the committee that his proposal could save around 300 lives each year.

Carson said the issue caught his attention when he found out that auto insurance rates had been rapidly rising across the state, in conjunction with an increasing number of fatal crashes. In 2016, Georgia personal auto insurance rates went up an average of 12 percent, the most in the nation, Carson said. Drivers who are texting, surfing the internet or using social media apps behind the wheel, are largely to blame for the rise in accidents, Carson believes.

Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, is against the bill. He said those who text while driving should be punished, but those who are holding a cellphone against their ear should not be penalized.

If the bill becomes law, Harris Blackwood of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety said his office would help put in place an aggressive public service campaign so that drivers would be aware of the law change.

“What we want to do here is not just pass a law, pass a regulation: We want to start a culture change,” Carson said. “This is the DUI issue of our generation.”

Times reporter Nick Bowman contributed to this report.