Smyrna becomes first city in Georgia to pass hands-free driving law

After weeks of testimony from concerned residents and grieving parents, Smyrna is now the first city in Georgia with a hands-free driving law.

The ordinance, which passed Tuesday, means drivers can’t have phones in their hands while driving within the city limits. Drivers are only allowed one touch, for things like answering a call or starting GPS instructions.

Councilman Derek Norton brought up the ordinance in November as a way to curb road deaths. This mirrors the efforts by those in the House Study Committee on Distracted Driving to figure out what needs to change to stop the rise of traffic deaths statewide.

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Georgia highway fatalities rose by a third from 2014 to 2016, when 1,561 people died. 

The legislative committee — chaired by State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta — began with its eyes on reccomending a hands-free driving law, knowing that such legislative efforts have failed in the past.

Current Georgia law bars drivers under 18 with a learner’s permit from using wireless devices while driving and prohibits adults from texting while driving.

This Smyrna law is more broad than texting, which is what advocates say is required for true safety. Violators can be fined up to $150.

Norton said he based the Smyrna ordinance off of the one passed in Austin in 2014.

You can read more about the Austin ordinance here.

Among those who spoke were the parents of Emily Clark, one of the five Georgia Southern University nursing students who died in a seven-car crash in April 2015. Clark, from Powder Springs, was 20 years old.

“Nobody wants to get that call … that your child is not going to be there,” the mother Kathy Clark said through tears, “but this is something good.”

Mayor Max Bacon broke the tied vote Tuesday after one of the seven council members, Ron Fennel, recused himself, citing a conflict of interest because of his involvement with a related nonprofit group.

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Norton said the law changed in a couple ways after talks with residents and others.

For instance, the ordinance at first didn’t even allow for one touch, but that changed after a talk with Uber because residents were concerned about the ride-sharing service feeling unwelcome in the city.

When the law starts, Norton said, police will give drivers a 45-day grace period. And the law is only good for two years, after which, he said, they’ll assess the data to see if it is helping.

And instead of the law immediately starting, it won’t come into effect until April 2, which Norton said should give enough time to see if the state will be able to pass similar legislation.

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Norton said that was a move that came from residents worried this would be a waste to do at the city level if the state is going to do the same thing. Even still, he didn’t want to wait and see.

“I get the feeling there will be a recommendation for legislation on the state level,” Norton said. But there’s one problem: It’s an election year, which, he said, can be distracting for legislators.

“In a politically charged environment like that, there’s no certainty anything like this would pass,” Norton said.

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