Bill would increase minimum age for driver’s license in Georgia

New legislation to create a permanent funding source for high school driver education programs may reopen a long-running debate over the General Assembly’s history of taking fee and fine money intended for one purpose and spending it on something else entirely.

State Rep. Keisha Waites, D-Atlanta, recently filed legislation that would raise the age at which teens can get a driver’s license from 16 to 17. Her bill would also require school districts to offer elective courses in driver education.

In addition, the bill would make permanent traffic ticket add-ons that are now supposed to pay for driver education programs under Joshua’s Law, a measure the General Assembly passed in the mid-2000s. Those add-ons — and the millions of dollars in revenue the state collects — will end June 30 unless the General Assembly acts during the 2016 session, which opens Jan. 11.

A companion proposed constitutional amendment would ask voters to dedicate the add-on money to driver education programs.

Since Waites is a Democrat in a Republican-run General Assembly, her chances of getting her bills passed aren’t good. However, Joshua’s Law and the diversion of money raised through fees and fines and various court add-ons could be a hot topic during the session.

Some of Waites’ Republican colleagues have agreed that money the General Assembly promises to spend on things such as driver education and environmental cleanup should go to those programs.

That hasn’t necessarily been the case.

Alan Brown, whose son’s death inspired the teen driver safety statute Joshua’s Law, said only about 10 percent of the $80 million or so the state has raised from the add-ons has gone to driver education programs.

The General Assembly in 2013 lowered the Joshua’s Law surcharge from 5 percent to 1.5 percent of the original fine for traffic offenses in part because the money wasn’t going to driver education programs. The state has since started providing more money, although Brown said it will take more than 40 years to get programs in every high school at the current rate of funding.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported that in all, state lawmakers have diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of fee money — from landfill fees to court surcharges — in an effort to balance the budget, allowing them to avoid raising taxes or having to further cut spending. In doing so, they’ve collected money from Georgians telling them their fees were going for one thing while spending them on another.

While her legislation could stop one of those diversions, Waites was inspired to sponsor her proposals by teen driving fatalities, including the recent deaths of Dacula High School students Jared and Jaison Brown.

“It has nothing to do with age, it’s the (driving) experience,” Waites said. “All we are trying to do is give them a few more hours (of training) before we put them out on the road.”

She said: “It is our duty to take the necessary steps to ensure that Georgia teens have the tools and resources they need to be responsible and safe drivers. Far too many injuries and fatal accidents involving inexperienced teen drivers occur every day on Georgia’s busy roads and interstates.”

Brown said: “I think it’s a great start to remove the sunset (from Joshua’s Law). It is something I have been working on for 10 years.

“I hope it is a nonpartisan issue. I don’t think saving the lives of our teenagers should involve partisan politics.”

But House Public Safety Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, doesn’t give Waites’ proposals much of a chance.

“Raising the driver’s license age to 17 probably isn’t going to fly,” Powell said. “At the age of 16, parents are tired of having to carry their kids around.”

Getting a license at 16, he said, “is a rite of passage.”

He also thinks it may be too expensive to have all public schools offer driver education programs. And Powell said he would vote against extending the ticket add-ons that are included in Joshua’s Law.

The lawmaker said the state already tacks so many additional fees onto traffic tickets that many Georgians can’t afford to pay them.

And, he said, “it’s not fair because the money is not going where it’s supposed to go anyway.”

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