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Some leery of higher fines on Georgia drivers using phones

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Georgia drivers could face tougher penalties for using their cell phones while driving, although some lawmakers are leery of setting higher fines.

The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee heard testimony Monday on House Bill 113, but delayed action until next week in the face of questions.

Two years ago, Georgia law banned holding a cellphone while driving. But the measure let drivers off with a warning the first time and set the maximum fine for the second violation at only $50.

Evidence shows the law is working, with Georgia’s motor vehicle fatality rates falling 7% since its passage. Now Rep. John Carson, a Marietta Republican, wants to toughen the law.

“I want to get people off their phones and save lives,” Carson told committee members.

He wants to eliminate the first-time warning and double fines. Carson’s plan would create a fine of up to $100 on a first offense, $200 on a second offense and $300 on third and following offenses. Those convicted would also have to pay court surcharges of 40% or more. Now, those convicted of cellphone offenses are exempt from those court costs. Finally, Carson’s proposal would double fines again in school and work zones, to up to $200 on the first offense.

“I know people don’t want to go home in an election year and say I voted for a $100 fine, but I want you to understand the gravity of this issue,” Carson told committee members.

The absolute ban on drivers younger than 18 using their phones, even hands-free, would be maintained.

Offenders also may face higher auto insurance rates.

A version of the measure was debated last year but didn’t advance.

A number of safety groups are supporting the bill. But some witnesses and committee members questioned whether higher fines would deter anyone, and spoke out against court surcharges, saying state government siphons them up and doesn’t spend the money on what lawmakers intended.

“At some point, when does a fine become a tax?” asked Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican. “And that is what this doing.”

The bill under discussion calls for sending the increased revenue to underwrite Georgia’s trauma treatment system, but can’t guarantee the General Assembly will spend the cash on that purpose without a state constitutional amendment.

Committee members also questioned whether it would be better if judges gave offenders community service or order them to driving school. Since the current law is a fine-only offense, judges can’t do any of those things.

“It seems if you sent someone to the side of the road to pick up trash, you might be a little more sensitive to the issue,” said Rep. Jesse Petrea, a Savannah Republican.

Carson said he would work with committee members, but said he disagreed that his proposed fines were too high.

“I don’t think they need to be any lower,” Carson said after the hearing. “To talk about a $100 fine for something that is very easy to avoid, I don’t think is unusual.”