Bill targets teen drivers on cell phones

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers have been debating whether to prohibit drivers from talking on cell phones virtually since the technology began to come into widespread use nearly a decade ago.

While a host of bills have come and gone, nothing has made it into law in a state with a longstanding aversion to government intrusion into the rights of citizens.

But supporters of clamping down on a practice studies have shown to be dangerous are hoping they finally have found a winning approach with legislation aimed at a group of drivers Georgians most want to protect: teenagers.

A bill prefiled in the House for this winter's legislative session would prohibit 16-year-old and 17-year-old drivers from using cell phones. The measure also would apply to holders of learner's permits.

The legislation is a natural extension of bills the General Assembly has passed in recent years restricting young drivers, said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, the bill's sponsor. Those laws include a curfew on teen drivers and a limit on the number of passengers they can transport.

"They're very inexperienced,'' Oliver said. "We restrict their driving privileges in many ways now. ... This is a very reasonable restriction.''

Georgia would not be the first state to single out young drivers' use of cell phones.

Matt Sundeen, a transportation specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said about a dozen states have passed laws prohibiting teen drivers from chatting while driving.

Most ban the practice even if the driver is using one of the increasingly available hands-free units, he said.

Oliver's bill also would make no distinction between drivers holding a cell phone and those using a hands-free device.

"The research shows use of cell phones is comparable to driving drunk with a blood alcohol content of 0.08,'' she said, referring to the minimum blood alcohol level now considered legally intoxicated under Georgia law. "It makes you four times more likely to have an accident.''

Rep. Chuck Sims, R-Douglas, a member of the House Motor Vehicles Committee, said he is sympathetic to what Oliver is trying to accomplish.

But he warned that the General Assembly historically has been cool to attempts to mandate what drivers and passengers must do to protect themselves.

Sims noted that it took years for supporters of requiring the wearing of seat belts to get the bill through the Legislature. That law still doesn't apply to pickup trucks.

Sims has had personal experience with lawmakers' hostile attitude toward limiting Georgians' rights to use their motor vehicles as they see fit. A bill he introduced last winter putting restrictions on young drivers of all-terrain vehicles made it through the Motor Vehicles Committee but didn't get to the floor for a vote.

Sims said Oliver's cell phone bill isn't likely to draw much support from the rural legislators who still are a major force in the General Assembly.

"We don't have as much of a problem in the rural areas with this as in the urban areas because of the amount of traffic,'' he said.

Sims said Oliver's bill might get some traction in the Legislature if it excluded hands-free cell phones.

Even the handful of states that bar cell phone use by drivers of all ages permit the use of hands-free phones.

But studies have shown that using hands-free cell phones reduces drivers' reaction times because, while they can keep their hands on the wheel, they are still distracted by their phone conversations.