Cell phones in cars, tax holiday targets of Georgia bills

Cell phones in cars, tax holiday targets of Georgia bills

February 8th, 2011 by Andy Johns in News

Ga., State Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton

After two weeks' work, Georgia lawmakers already have tackled some familiar issues such as abortion and alcohol sales as well as some eye-catching new bills on cell phone use, tax-free shopping days, bicycle safety and even a bill creating a new state holiday.

"We've got our plates full," said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton.

House Bill 67, sponsored by two Savannah-area Democrats, Mickey Stephens and J. Craig Gordon, and Rahn Mayo, a Democrat from Decatur, would ban cell phone use in cars except for hands-free devices. The cell phone bill has been assigned to the telecommunications committee, of which Williams is a member.

He gave the bill a good chance of passing and said he likely would support it. He called cell phones a "huge distraction" and hands-free devices would be safer.

"It's just something that I think people need to get used to," he said.

The National Safety Council has long espoused the dangers of cell phone use in cars.

But Robert Wilson, spokesman for the Georgia Chapter of the National Safety Council, said he does not like the bill because it doesn't go far enough. He cited studies that suggest hands-free devices are not any safer than holding the phone.

"Just going to a hands free does not improve safety," he said. "The distraction is not the physical phone, it's the conversation."

Proposed bill

Proposed bills in the Georgia House:

House Bill 126 -- Declares April 19 as "Patriots Day" in remembrance of Paul Revere's famous ride in 1775 and a naval battle off St. Simons Island where the Georgia Navy captured three British ships.

House Bill 132 -- Forces insurance companies to cover physician-prescribed special foods for a list of chronic medical conditions.

House Bill 134 -- Adds criteria to be considered when the state gives permits for transferring water from one river basin to another.

House Bill 73 -- Creates an optional local sales tax for communities to support economic development improvements.

House Bill 94 -- Requires police to adopt policies against racial profiling.

House Bill 51 -- Requires deposits and refunds on beverage containers in order to encourage recycling.

He said phone calls, especially emotional or involved conversations, can cause tunnel vision and "inattention blindness" so drivers don't notice other vehicles or pedestrians.

"It's looking out the windshield and focusing on the conversation and something's got to give," Wilson said.

Overall in the legislative session, Williams said he expects a "very deliberate" session with fewer bills making it to the floor for debate than in years past.

That might be bad news for a slew of other bills already introduced.

House Bill 136 would bring back a tax-free back-to-school shopping weekend at the end of July.

Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, said she would like to see the bill passed.

"I think that is something that helps families across Georgia," she said.

As lawmakers face a second consecutive year of steep budget cuts due to slumping tax revenue, Reece and Williams said the tax-free weekend likely would be a hard sell. Reece, however, said she believes not having the tax holiday would be detrimental.

The decision not to renew the holiday last year means that "in the long run we probably lost some taxes," she said. "The sales tax exemption could be made for school supplies and yet there are other things these families are going to purchase to offset that."

Another bill, House Bill 101, adds new bicycle regulations, including making it illegal to block bicycle lanes, requiring bikes to have lights rather than just reflectors at night and removing an old law that banned the sale of bikes without reflectors on pedals.

Wilson, with the National Safety Council, said he likes the idea of requiring lights but is surprised to see the change in reflector rules.

"I don't know why you would want to remove something that would help someone see you," he said. "(Drivers) are looking for other cars and sometimes, if there's a bike or a motorcycle there, they may not even see it."

Calhoun Cycling Club President Marcus Palazzolo, who runs the Cherokee Cycles bike shop, said most serious riders already have the lights.

"If they're going to ride in the evening, they're going to be in compliance," he said.

As for the bike lanes, he said the new rules will not have much of an impact on this part of the state because bike lanes are scarce.

"In Northwest Georgia, I know of about zero," he said.

Contact staff writer Andy Johns at ajohns@timesfree press.com or call 423-757-6324.