The July 1st initiation of the revamped distracted-driving law — the Hands-Free Georgia Act — is conjuring up questions, criticism, and anxiety. I’ve heard from many people who think that the beefed-up law is simply another source of revenue or that it doesn’t go far enough to stop distracted driving. Others are confused about if they’re allowed to stream audio on their phones (yes, as long as it’s only adjusted while the vehicle is legally parked; adjusting it on the dashboard screen is legal). And still others think the new rules ban phone calls and GPS (nope, they only ban people holding their phones while driving, unless they are making an emergency call). One fact should calm all of us down: this has been done already in 15 states. Fifteen.
Over the past two weeks, we have covered what the law allows and bans and discussed some devices and advice for using a phone legally. The new law pretty much bans ever holding a phone while driving and makes other acts such as texting completely hands-free. It also completely bans watching or shooting videos behind the wheel. And the adjustments people must make are very similar to those people have made in other states.
I cast a net on social media, asking my friends in states with similar laws what they did to adjust. One, who wished to remain unnamed, said the adjustment was simple: use a headset or Bluetooth earpiece. Having these or even earbuds on just one ear is perfectly legal under Georgia’s new law and makes using the phone without holding it much easier. This same friend was in New York when the laws changed and got caught holding his phone. But the officer gave him a warning, plus the threat of a $300 fine the next time it happened again, and he complied. He said that while using the headset was at first an inconvenience, he got used to it quickly and really had no issues once he got a car with a Bluetooth system.
Kelli Kitchens moved from Georgia to Maryland, where the hands-free laws are more strict than Georgia’s now. It wasn’t a big deal to her.
“I honestly can’t say it was much of an adjustment moving to Maryland. I admit to using my phone a couple of times while driving with no consequences,” Kitchens said in a Facebook message. “A co-worker of mine up there was holding and talking on the phone and stopped at a red light one time. She mentioned an officer pulled up next to her and motioned for her to put the phone down, but didn’t initiate a traffic stop or issue a citation for it.”
These are two instances where officers could have ticketed and fined drivers, but chose not to. Enforcement has been a big question among many I have talked to about the law. The supposed “90-day grace period” is something that only the Georgia State Patrol has mentioned. But even GSP has said that they will nab people under the new law, if the circumstances are bad enough or extremely egregious. Each law enforcement agency can choose whether or not they have a grace period, though many likely will go easy at first.
Other respondents to my question about laws in other states seemed very nonchalant about the laws’ existence. Technology is good enough now, even on older phones, to be able to obey the rules fairly easily. Tractor trailer drivers have had to comply with similar laws for several years.
And even if the stricter law causes people to make major changes in their behavior, it is rightfully so. Traffic crashes and deaths have seen sharp increases in Georgia in the last few years and our insurance premiums are among the highest in the nation. Behavior needs to change. And texting behind the wheel, moving or not, has been illegal for eight years. But people do it now more than ever.
Lawmakers needed to make the law against texting and driving, the most dangerous of the behind-the-wheel phone habits, easier to enforce. They now have banned people holding or resting their phones on themselves. Most states with similar laws have seen at least a 15% decrease in annual traffic deaths. If Georgia gets anywhere near that success rate, the changes are worth the culture shock.
We will hold a live special, “Georgia’s New ‘Hands-Free’ Law: The Do’s and Don’t’s of Distracted Driving” with WSB Radio’s Mark Arum, the WSB Traffic Team, and the AJC’s David Wickert on Tuesday from 7-9 p.m. on News 95.5/AM750 WSB, wsbtv.com, and the AJC’s Facebook page. Be sure to watch!
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive airborne anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.