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Sunday December 16th, 2018 10:10AM

Panel supports bill to combat distracted driving in Georgia

By The Associated Press
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 a bill 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. 
 
``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.'' 
 
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. 
 
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.''
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