Georgia Distracted Driving Bill Aims to Save Lives

Advanced Media Writing

BY ROBERT THOMAS

Read the heart-wrenching perspective of Natalie Bacho, who lost her daughter to distracted driving and advocated in favor of the recent Georgia distracted driving bill. Opponents to the bill feel it is a government overreach, but police feel it is necessary. The bill aims to save lives and studies reveal it is likely to do so.

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KENNESAW, Ga. – While others were enjoying the festivities of the Christmas season, shopping for loved ones and enjoying time with their families, Natalie Bacho sat at Abby’s, her 9-year-old daughter, hospital bedside as she clung to life by a thread.

Abby was in the car with the rest of her family on the way to look at Christmas lights after a meal out with family on December 22 when the car was struck by an 18-year-old driver who was talking on his phone at the time. The collision resulting from this young distracted driver put three of Bacho’s family members in critical condition, one of whom was Abby who eventually passed away on Christmas day. “That one second choice of a young driver completely ripped our family apart,” Bacho said.

Natalie Bacho’s story is just one of thousands of Georgian families who have had their loved one ripped from them as a result of distracted driving, and like Natalie Bacho, many are fighting hard to ensure the same fate doesn’t happen to more families.

Largely due to the push of families like hers, House Bill 673, which is designed to prohibit motorists from holding their phones while driving, recently passed the Georgia legislature and is on its way to being signed by Gov. Nathan Deal who has already endorsed the measure. However, many Georgians disagree with the measure and believe it is an overreach by government and a violation of their rights.

Opposition To HB 673

Some opponents to the bill claim that the loss of life is too insignificant to warrant such actions by the state. “Should we really do such a massive overreach legislating the few incidences that happen, versus the millions that happen where nothing goes wrong?” Kennesaw State University student Mike Brock said. Many like Brock are skeptical of the actual impact that the law would have in decreasing the number of distracted drivers and traffic fatalities. “People are still going to do it. People will use their cell phones regardless,” he says.

Asa Cooper, a local resident who supports the bill, says that while he finds it easy to make excuses to use his phone for just “one quick second” while driving, and is admittedly reluctant to obey the law, but he understands the need for the bill. Even Bacho admitted that she would occasionally use her phone before the tragedy of losing her daughter to distracted driving.

Changing Perspectives on Driving

“People have to understand that you just can’t do that, that lives are literally in their hands,” Bacho says. “If we have a law in place that it’s going prevent them from doing that, and their going to know that that’s against the law if they’re reaching for something and they have it in their hands, then I think that’s when we’re really going to see a major change in those numbers and lives.”

Bacho says that she believes her daughter’s right to life is far more important than someone’s selfish desire to use their phone while driving. Also, despite the skepticism by some of the real impact, 13 and the 15 states that have passed a similar law saw a significant decrease in the rate of traffic fatalities within two years of their implementation. In addition to this, according to a 2017 report by the National Traffic Law Center, “Studies have shown the overall crash risk increases 3.6 times over model driving when a driver interacts with a handheld device.”

Enforcement of Law

Many opponents of the bill say that police should simply better enforce the existing texting while driving ban to address this issue. However, there are technical legal barriers to police enforcing the existing law. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it’s difficult for many police officers to tell if someone is texting or just dialing a phone number, which is legal under the current law. This unenforceable middle ground Bacho says, led to widespread backing of the measure by Georgia law enforcement in the council proceedings prior to the passage of the bill by the legislature.

Despite the support for the current bill, some remain skeptical of whether the law actually goes far enough. The initial version of the bill contained a steep increase to the first-offense fine for distracted driving to $300, which according to Bacho the families that testified before the legislature were widely in support of. However, before passage the senate amended the bill to lower the proposed first-offense fine to just $50. Bacho was also worried about the level of distraction present even when using a hands-free device to talk on the phone. “When we are engaged in a phone call, especially when you’re driving, you’re cognitively engaged in something else,” Bacho said.

Hands-free Devices

Although, other voices, such as local resident Michael Browning, argue that as our cars become better at connecting to our phones and allowing more hands-free use of our devices, that fatalities from distracted driving will decrease. Browning believes that part of the issue is in older model cars not easily syncing with our phones and requiring drivers to touch their phones to change a song or use navigation. “As our cars allow us to be more hands-free to do the things that we want to do, I think that at that point there’s no excuse for me to have my phone in my hand because I don’t need it to control my music, I don’t need it to send this message, and I don’t need it to call this person,” Browning said.

Saving Other Lives

After the tragic loss of her daughter, not only did Bacho testify before the legislature in favor of the bill, she also decided to form the “Abby’s Angels Foundation”, which she says seeks to bring awareness and education to drivers of all ages of the dangers of distracted driving, provide school supplies and encouragement to students in need, and to advocate for organ donation. “Knowing that Abby’s life was going to end, for us, and for me, and for our family, that wasn’t okay,” Bacho said. “She was only nine and she had a big beautiful life to live. That was taken from her and it could’ve been prevented.”

Striking the Proper Balance Between Religious Liberty and Civil Rights

Advanced Media Writing

By Robert Thomas

As he sat on the grass outside, eating lunch with his friends on a typical afternoon at school, a very nervous 17-year-old Elias Escobedo considered revealing the deep secret of who he really was to five of his closest friends. He was nearing the end of his senior year in high school and felt that now was the best time to be honest with his current friends. As they discussed a related topic, Escobedo came out and told his friends that he was in fact gay. The group was suddenly filled with silence and blank stares as the sinking feeling of rejection, disappointment, and fear rose in the pit of Escobedo’s stomach. “I got a sinking feeling of ‘Ugh, I know where this is going’,” Escobedo said. “I’d seen enough movies and horror stories about coming out to your friends, and about how people are rejected.” He was socially ostracized by his friends for the ‘crime’ of being himself.

Almost everyone has felt that sinking feeling of rejection and the pain of being turned away for the crime of being oneself. However, perhaps no group understands this pain better, and more consistently, than those who happen to be gay, bisexual or transgender. In Georgia’s state legislature, politicians are now weighing the merits of making it easier for state-funded religious adoption agencies to reject same-sex couples from treatment equal to that of heterosexual couples.

Like Escobedo, many loving same-sex couples are likely to be rejected from state-funded religious adoption agencies simply for being who they are, and a recent Georgia bill that has already passed the senate aims to make it easier to do so. The bill is sponsored by State Sen. William Ligon and would give legal protection to faith-based adoption agencies receiving taxpayer funding that decline to place a child with people whose lifestyle they disagree with, including single parents, unwed couples and LGBT couples. “Just because you are a faith-based organization, doesn’t mean you have to check your faith at the door and cannot participate in government programs,” Ligon said.

Opponents of the bill, however, feel that the bill is a violation of the separation of church and state, and would essentially allow state-sanctioned discrimination by adoption agencies. “When a state is giving such an advantage to faith, I feel that’s definitely a violation of the separation of church and state,” said Pilar Varroa, a student assistant to the Kennesaw State University LGBTQ student group. . The measure is also pushed on despite the fact that faith-based adoption agencies already have the right to reject same-sex couples in the state of Georgia.

However those in support of the bill, such as Elizabeth Norvell, who is a staff member of ‘Cru,’ an interdenominational Christian organization that is active on KSU campus, feel that the bill is necessary. “It sets in stone that they have that protection,” she said. “Because it’s one thing to say ‘Oh yeah they have this protection’ but it’s another thing to say ‘oh here’s a bill that absolutely protects you’”

Norvell also went on to state that she does not believe the bill violates the separation of church and state, and argued that the government also likely supports institutions that she would be opposed to. “I think just because you would disagree with something shouldn’t necessarily prevent the government from supporting it if they think it’s a good idea and they think it would be worth while.”

Another common argument, outside of simple religious reasons, posed by many religious groups who aim to justify restricting same-sex couples from adopting is that adoption by a same-sex couple is more likely to be psychologically detrimental to the welfare of the child. “I personally believe that a child would best be raised by getting a mother and a father’s love versus a same-sex couple,” said Norvell.

However, this strongly held belief seems to contradict the mainstream of current scientific research on the subject. According to new research published by the American Psychology Association, children adopted into lesbian and gay families are as well-adjusted as children adopted by heterosexual parents, and follow similar patterns of gender development. A five-year impact study published in the research journal Sex Roles also found that there is no major difference in the gender identity development of children raised by same-sex parents compared to those adopted by heterosexual couples. KSU psychology professor Daniel Rogers as well echoes the conclusion of these studies. “Like all good science, we just look at the accumulation of evidence and the accumulation of evidence is pretty clear in its conclusion,” Rogers said. “There seems to be very little, if any, differences in outcomes for the child.”

When this professional opinion of the research by Rogers was posed to Norvell, she responded by saying that she would have to have a better view of the research to make a definitive statement on it. “I would need to have a conversation with him and see in detail where he’s coming from before I would make an opinion,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to make a blanket statement like ‘oh this study is wrong’ or ‘this study is right’ without doing more research into the studies.”

While both sides of this issue seem to want what they feel is best for the adoptive child, they have quite different approaches to the solution. Varroa argues that the bill would mean that fewer children are given permanent placement in perfectly loving, safe and secure homes. Varroa as well expressed fear that the bill could cause LGBT youth to be placed with conservative religious families intolerant of their sexual orientation. Those spoke in support of the bill, however, feel it will not affect the number of children that are adopted or that impact will be negligible.

Joseph Campbell, who is in favor of the bill, stated that while he supports faith-based adoption agencies’ ability to choose who they adopt to, he personally feels that regardless who the child is adopted to, the well being of the child should be the highest priority. “Personally I feel that while the rights of adoption agencies are important, whether the parents are gay or straight, the happiness of the child should be of highest concern.”

After Server Wipe Scandal, Georgia Residents Consider Returning to Paper Ballots

Advanced Media Writing

By Robert Thomas

Like many others, Mari Jacobson was quite excited for her chance to vote for the first time in Georgia’s June 20 6th congressional district special election last year and had great confidence that her vote counted.

As Jacobson went with her mom to vote at a local library in Johns Creek, Georgia, that sunny afternoon, she was pessimistic but hopeful about her preferred candidate’s chances of winning. Despite not feeling “super magical” after her first time voting as she expected, Jacobson had strong faith in the election process, and the electronic voting machine she voted on. “I know there were a lot of questions of interference when it came to the presidential election, but I didn’t really think about it pertaining to this small election,” Jacobson said. But after hearing news of the scandal over Georgia’s election servers being wiped last October, she now feels her confidence in the process has been shattered.

She is, however, joined in her skepticism of the current process by State Rep. Scot Turner, who last week proposed House Bill 680 to return the state to paper ballots, which he says are more secure than electronic voting machines. Turner not alone in his push, as in recent years there has been an increasing number of states returning to traditional paper ballots. Although, many local voters remain skeptical of whether switching to paper ballots would have any actual impact on election security.

Broderick Armbrister, who also voted in the election, echoes Jacobson in saying he felt quite passionate about his vote as he stepped into the voting booth at the Milton Public Library and fulfilled what he considered to be his “citizen duties” that afternoon. Armbrister says he considers himself politically active and even went canvassing for his preferred candidate a number of times prior to the election. “I try to be practical with these things,” Armbrister said. “Politics is no joke. It’s really serious.”

Politically fatigued with the current political atmosphere, however, Jacobson was unsurprised when she initially heard of the scandal over Georgia’s election server’s being wiped. “I should’ve been more shocked than I was, but I really kind of wasn’t,” she said. “It was just kind of like ‘Oh. Well that happened.’” Like many others, Jacobson felt powerless and unsure of what one person could do. Though this news increased her skepticism of electronic voting, she remains skeptical of the benefit of paper ballots versus electronic voting.

State Rep. Turner, however, strongly believes in the superior security of traditional paper ballots over electronic voting machines, and is fighting to make the switch. Turner is apparently not alone among his party in this sentiment either; as David Shock, a Kennesaw State University political science professor, says that there is currently a significant division over the issue at the state level. “It appears that you have some Republicans trying to put Brian Kemp, the Secretary of State, in a difficult position in terms of defending electronic voting”, said Shock. Brian Kemp, who Shock says is the one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination in the gubernatorial election, has vigorously defended the safety of electronic voting.

While Shock is skeptical there is substantial risk with electronic voting, he does see the benefits of paper ballots and also concurs with State Rep. Scot Turner in saying that paper ballots are most likely more secure. Previous studies by security experts at Princeton University, however, have repeatedly demonstrated that many electronic voting machines are dangerously insecure and vulnerable to attack and manipulation. Another similar study, done by the Brennan Center for Justice, showed that 43 states, including Georgia, were using voting machines that were at least a decade old; perilously close to the end of the projected lifespan for most of these systems. Security experts at Princeton University say this puts them at an increased risk of attack and manipulation.

However, despite these flaws of electronic voting, there are definite advantages to electronic voting. “The advantage of electronic voting is that it prevents people from casting, at least accidently, what is called a spoiler ballot,” said Shock. A spoiler ballot is a paper ballot that has been marked in a way that invalidates the ballot. Shock said spoiler ballots are typically significantly below 1 percent in any given election. In fact, a survey of the 2006 midterm elections by the United States Election Assistance Commission found an undervoting rate of just 0.1 percent in US Senate elections and 1.6 percent in US House elections, with overvotes being even rarer. Shock also says that electronic voting machines allow for significantly faster tallying of votes, and thus faster election results.

An analysis of data by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of registered voters, or 47 percent, live in jurisdictions that use only optical-scan paper ballot voting as their standard voting system, and about 28 percent live in jurisdictions with electronic voting machines only. Another 19 percent of registered voters live in jurisdictions where both are used.

A possible compromise to this issue, that many jurisdictions have clearly taken, is paper ballot assistive marking devices. Rather than recording the vote into a computer’s memory, these electronic devices instead mark votes on a paper that is later tabulated manually. The benefit of these machines is a verifiable paper audit trail, or physical slips of paper for every vote that is counted is produced. Some of these devices even produce a tangible piece of paper for the voter showing the name of the candidate they voted for, and a symbol of the party. This allows a voter a verifiable means of knowing their vote was correctly counted. These machines also have the added benefit of reducing or eliminating the amount of unintentionally spoilt votes made on paper.

Although many security experts say that paper ballots are more secure, several voters, like Jacobson and Armbrister, are still skeptical that paper ballots will make a difference, with Jacobson going as far as to say she believes electronic voting is possibly equally secure. “I don’t think going backwards is the next step,” said Jacobson. “We should try to find out a new more innovative way if they really want to change it.”