GEORGIA (WTOC) - Georgia lawmakers are working on a new bill to reduce distracted driving by stiffening the penalties, and they're getting support from parents who know crashes involving a distracted driver can be life-altering.
It only takes a walk upstairs inside Craig and Kathy Clark's home to see loss in a physical form.
"I don't even know how to describe it," Kathy said. "It's just been an emotional rollercoaster."
Their daughter's bedroom is filled with photos and accolades, but it stays empty.
"Never want another family to get the call that we got," Craig said.
Their daughter, Emily Clark, is one of five Georgia Southern nursing students killed in a car accident by a distracted driver in April 2015.
"We knew about the accident, and we hadn't heard from her," Kathy said. "But you still keep that hope that she's at clinicals, and she can't call us and let us know what going on. So we kept that hope. It was late in the afternoon when we got the call, so just keeping that little glimmer of hope that she's going to call us when she got done."
"Disbelief," said Craig recalling his first reaction. "Some part of you goes numb. You know you don't want to believe that, but some part of you says it's true. I think for me it was hardest telling Kathy and telling Hailey that our worst fear has been realized. There's some part of denial there. You know, those things don't happen to you. They happen to other people, and that's what you always think. Bad things don't happen to us. That's where you look at the news, and you say, 'Oh I feel so sorry for those people,' because it's always somebody else. It's never going to be you. And then all of a sudden, it's you. It's your daughter's face on the news. That suddenly becomes your reality. It's tough."
They say Emily was compassionate and loved helping people. That's why nursing was a perfect fit. Now, they're hoping to help others by advocating for a new bill aiming to reduce distracted driving.
"It's trying to find the new normal for our family," Craig said. "Our family dynamic's completely changed, and it's hard. Everything about it's hard, but we want to honor Emily the best we can, to honor her legacy and her memory. This is a way to do it, to try to help others, you know, to try to make our roads safer."
Rep. John Carson is spearheading House Bill 673, which, if passed, would enact a hands-free driving law for Georgia.
"I would call this the DUI issue of our generation," Carson said. "Distracted driving is the DUI issue of our generation, and we've got to stop it."
The new law would require drivers to store a cell phone anywhere except their hands. Drivers can mount cell phones on a car's dashboard or set them on a passenger seat or console. They could still touch the phone, use voice-command or other hands-free technology to operate it.
"You can use it for dialing a phone number, ending a call, and you can use your phone for GPS navigation," Carson said. "Other than that, hands-free."
Georgia's skyrocketing car insurance premium rates, not fatal car accidents, drove Carson's interest in changing the law initially.
In 2016, Georgia's insurance premium rates increased by 12.2 percent. That's more than double the national average increase of 5.6 percent.
"People that text and drive, they don't admit to texting and driving," Carson said. "That's the issue. When you can't identify the cause of a particular crash, it just gets spread over the entire insurance pool."
Governor's Office of Highway Safety Director Harris Blackwood said it's a step in the right direction to improve the law Georgia's used since 2010 and make it more enforceable.
"An officer can look without question, if he sees the phone in someone's hand, they're getting a ticket," Blackwood said. "That's it. Now, there's a question mark about that."
Blackwood also said it would clear up the common misconception that the current law only prohibits texting, not internet data usage, like social media.
"We've had people actually get out of cars and say, 'Well, I wasn't texting. I was on Facebook.' No," Blackwood said.
Blackwood said the bottom line with this bill is saving lives.
"We're killing people at the rate of one every six hours," he said. "One person in this state will die every six hours because of traffic crashes."
Carson chaired the House Study Committee on Distracted Driving before authoring the bill, and he traveled across the state gathering input and sharing statistics about the problem nationally and in Georgia.
Georgia's traffic crashes increased 36 percent from 2014 to 2016, and fatal crashes increased 34 percent over the same period, according to the study. Both it and Blackwood say the kinds of crashes happening most frequently are distinctive of distracted driving.
"We see crashes where people leave the roadway, overcorrect, cross the center line [and] hit a car, strike a car from behind or strike an object," Blackwood said. "All of those are symptomatic of distraction and texting."
Craig and Kathy Clark are hoping their efforts help save lives, too. They say they're not sure what truck driver John Wayne Johnson was doing when he crashed into their daughter's car, but they do know he was distracted enough to never slow down and never notice he crashed into her until after it happened.
"He said he didn't realize that he'd even hit them," Kathy said."He thought it was a bump in the road. He hit her and went over the top of her vehicle and then hit Abbie's car, who was in front of her, and he said he never knew that he'd hit them. He felt like - he didn't realize he'd hit anything until the truck stopped him. He just felt like it was, like he said, a bump in the road."
The Clarks said hearing someone could be that distracted while driving a vehicle made them realize Georgia needed a stronger law.
"When they told us about this, that this was coming up, we told them, 'Definitely. We need to be part of it. We'll do whatever we can to help,'" Kathy said. "Testifying before the committees, just talking to the representatives, emailing them, calling them, passing out flyers. The whole nine yards."
Fifteen states and Washington D.C. have similar hands-free laws, and 13 saw a 16 percent on average decrease in traffic fatalities within two years of passing and enforcing the new laws.
"I think that it's important to realize that Georgia's not the first state to look at this," Craig said. "We can look at their accident data and see where the accidents have declined in states that have initiated hands-free type legislation. So, the data's out there, and I think when you look at the data, it makes sense."
Kathy and Craig Clark are sharing their story and their pain publicly to hopefully prevent another family from sharing their tragedy.
"We don't want anybody else to have to sit here when it's something that can be so easily prevented," Craig said. "You know, until we get people to put their phones down and pay attention when they drive, we're going to continue to see these kinds of fatalities and accidents happen."
Carson's current version of the bill penalizes drivers with $150 dollar fine plus a $300 distracted driving fine. The money collected from the distracted driving fine would be dedicated to trauma care funding across the state, and Carson says hospitals in Savannah would receive some of that money.
It also implements a new staggered points system, increasing the number levied against your license with each offense. It's 2 points on a first offense, 3 points on a second offense, 5 points on a third offense, and 6 points on fourth offense.
In Georgia, it takes 15 points in 24 month period to suspend a driver's license.
"Enough points that, if you have three or more violations, you are in very serious trouble, and you may lose your license," Blackwood said. "I don't want anyone to lose their license, but sometimes you have to do that to get people to pay attention."
Carson and the Clarks hope those increased penalties help curb behavior.
"What it's really is going to take is culture change, and I think that starts with some stronger laws for enforcement," Carson said.
Craig said, "I think it's the continued awareness. It's stiffening the penalties around distracted driving, much like you have with DUI. It's the same thing when we were enacting DUI law or seatbelt laws. Until the punishment was severe enough to get people's attention, behaviors didn't really start to change."
By being two voices working to bring that awareness, Craig and Kathy hope their daughter lives on in lives saved.
"[Passing the bill means] that our daughter didn't die in vain, and that maybe, maybe somebody else won't get that call," Kathy said.
Craig said, "We have an 18-year-old daughter that's out there driving. Kathy's out there driving, family. You know, anything we can do to help make them safer is well worth it. At the end of the day, if passing this legislation or helping push this through saves one life, it's worth every minute we spend doing it."
Carson said he's confident some version of the bill will pass this session.
"I'm almost certain it will have at least a House floor vote," he said. "I think it has a lot of legs. People don't want to give up their phones, but they know it's an issue."
Carson also did some polling of voter support for the bill and found 72 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats said they favored a hands-free law. About 18 to 20 percent were undecided.
"This has a lot of support," he said. "It has the governor's support. I'm hoping it'll have the Senate support as well."
Carson said specific details are still being worked out in committee meetings. House Bill 673 passed with a 5-1 vote out of Rep. Bert Reeves' subcommittee with members of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Tuesday. It will need to pass through the full House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee on Wednesday before moving on to the House Rules Committee and eventually the House floor.