By Diane Wagner
Legislation banning the use of cellphones while driving is being drafted for the upcoming Georgia General Assembly session and, this time around, Rep. Eddie Lumsden expects wide support.
Texting while driving was banned in 2010, but the Armuchee Republican — who serves on the House Distracted Driving Study Committee — said the compromise bill failed to stem the rise of accidents with injuries or fatalities.
“The texting law is really ineffective,” Lumsden said Wednesday. “The penalties aren’t stringent enough and there are many loopholes.”
The study committee, chaired by Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, has been meeting since August and is expected to sign off on a proposed bill before the group disbands Dec. 1. Lumsden said they’ve drawn from the model used by the military and U.S. Department of Defense to simplify the issue.
“Basically, you cannot touch your phone while driving,” he said. “You can still use it if you have hands-free capabilities, and you can use apps such as GPS if you set them up before you start. You just can’t touch the phone.”
Penalties would be increased from the current $150 fine and one point against the driver’s record.
“A lot of people just look at that as the cost of doing business,” Lumsden said.
The draft being finalized now calls for penalties of four points and up to $1,000 at the discretion of the judge.
The study committee was formed to examine trends indicating that fatal wrecks in Georgia are increasing at nearly three times the national average and highway deaths are at their highest level since 2007.
Lumsden said presentations to the group came from representatives of the telecommunications industry, insurance lobby, law enforcement and “families who have suffered losses as a result.” While the term “distracted driving” includes activities such as eating and applying make-up, he said there’s a clear connection to smartphones.
“There’s been a spike over the past two years or so that’s really gotten people’s attention,” Lumsden said. “We now have a younger generation coming of age that’s never been without these devices, teens through the mid-20s, and they’re the ones you see having injuries and fatalities from these accidents.”
What they’re saying
The February 2017 AAA Foundation annual Traffic Safety Culture Index found that 40.2 percent of U.S. drivers read a text message or email while driving within the past month.
But drivers aged 19 to 24 significantly outpaced that, with 66.1 percent admitting they’ve read a communication and 59.3 percent saying they’ve sent one.
Georgia had a serious injury rate of 11.44 per one million miles traveled in 2009, according to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, with 12,492 serious injuries recorded.
The rate took a dip in subsequent years, after the texting ban was enacted. However, by 2015, it was up to 16.46 per million-miles, with 19,405 serious injuries on state roads.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists crashes as the leading cause of teen deaths, and the GOHS reports that the rural traffic fatality rate is consistently double the rate in urban areas.
Law enforcement officers also have told the committee that it’s hard to make a case under the current law, since it only addresses texting — not the use of Facebook and other sites.
“The GOHS is very supportive of this new legislation; the governor is very supportive,” Lumsden said. “A lot of time and energy has been put into the study so I believe it stands a good chance of passing the House, at least.”
Lumsden said he’s also heard from a lot of people who have lost loved ones, been injured or even bumped from behind by a distracted driver.
Insurance rates in Georgia have been exceeding the national average for several years, he added. And texting drivers who don’t notice when a light turns from red to green throw off the signal timing on the road, leading to traffic jams.
“I have very strong feedback from folks out in the community saying, ‘yes, do this,’” he said. “I kind of pushed back against it a few years ago, but once you get into the human toll … we need to do something more than what we’re doing in the present.”