Safety advocates: Georgia’s distracted driving law a ‘first step’

You can’t hold a phone in your hand, but you can wear a smart watch on your wrist.

You can touch your phone to make a call, but not to send a text message. You can wear an earpiece to talk on the phone, but not to listen to music.

Supporters hope Georgia’s new distracted driving law – which takes effect Sunday – will save lives and usher in a new era of public awareness that makes fiddling with phones behind the wheel as objectionable as drunken driving.

But in the short term, it’s generating plenty of confusion about what’s legal and what’s not.

The Hands-Free Georgia Act - the biggest change to Georgia traffic laws in years - prohibits motorists from holding phones and other electronic devices while driving. But critics say it’s ambiguous in many respects, and some questions – like whether you can type an address into a GPS app while driving – may have to be settled in court.

What’s more, even some supporters worry it does too little to discourage bad behavior on the road. And by tacitly suggesting that behaviors that have not been outlawed are okay, some fear it could even encourage the distracted driving it seeks to stamp out.

“Talking hands-free can be just as distracting as talking on a hand-held phone,” said Georgia Tech philosophy professor Robert Rosenberger, who has studied our love affair with technology. “That’s not covered by the law.”

However, the law’s supporters say it’s a step in the right direction. Distracted driving is a major factor in the rising death toll on Georgia roads in recent years, and experts say cell phones are a prime culprit. The law, they say, will get people’s hands off their phones and back on their steering wheels.

State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the law’s sponsor, believes it’s already having a positive effect. Traffic fatalities are down about 10 percent so far this year from the same period a year ago. Carson believes publicity about the law and the distraction caused by phones has contributed to the decline.

But even Carson says the law may have to be improved down the road.

“The law is not perfect,” he said, “because it’s made by imperfect people.”

A simple rule gets complicated

At its simplest, the Hands-Free Georgia Act is easy to understand: You can no longer hold your phone while driving – not to make a call or anything else.

That’s a good rule of thumb for motorists. But it belies the complexity hidden in the laws details.

First, there are the exceptions. You can hold a phone to make a call if you’re reporting an accident, a medical emergency, a fire, a crime or hazardous road conditions.

You can also hold the phone while lawfully parked. But “parked” doesn’t mean stopped at a traffic light or stuck in traffic. It means off the road in a place where it’s legal to park.

Then there are the distinctions. You can’t “hold” your phone or support it with any part of your body (like your lap), but you can “touch” it when dialing a phone number or receiving a call (though not for other purposes). How do you touch a phone without holding it? A phone mount would help.

Then there are the interpretations. The law specifically states motorists can use a GPS app or device while driving.

But the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety – the agency responsible for educating motorists about the law – says you cannot touch your phone to type an address into your GPS app while driving. The agency says you’ll need to type in the address before you hit the road or use voice technology to do it while driving.

Philip Holloway, an attorney who handles traffic cases and a legal analyst for WSB, isn’t so sure. He said the law is ambiguous on many points, including the question of whether you can touch the phone while working your GPS.

Holloway said even police officers may initially be confused about how to interpret the law. Clarity may be months or even years away.

“These things will have to be either fixed by the Legislature or interpreted by the courts,” he said.

Carson said motorists shouldn’t get bogged down in the details of what is and isn’t permissible under the law.

“If people are asking about all these scenarios, they’re missing the larger objective,” he said. “Ask yourself, do you want someone doing that while driving behind your wife and children?”

Safety advocates hope the General Assembly will do more than clarify the law. They want stiffer fines for violations.

When it was introduced in January, the distracted driving legislation would have imposed fines of $150 for a first offense and up to $900 for repeat offenders. By the time it passed, the fines were whittled down to $50 for a first offense and up to $150 for repeat offenders.

Lawmakers also added an exemption for smart watches. And they included a provision that lets first offenders off the hook if they show a judge a receipt for hands-free technology. The idea is to give them a chance to comply with the law.

Mandi Sorohan, whose son Caleb died in an accident while texting and driving in 2009, supports the new law, calling it “a big step” in the right direction. But she called the fines “a slap on the hand” and hopes lawmakers will raise them in the future.

Rosenberger, the Georgia Tech professor, called the law “a good first step.” But he said it doesn’t go far enough to deter dangerous behavior.

“My worry about a law like is that it might somehow encourage using hands-free phones while driving, rather than giving the signal that you shouldn’t be on the phone while driving,” said Rosenberger.

“I’m afraid that laws like this tend to signal that these things are safe, and they’re not safe,” he said. “They’re just as bad.”

Evolving laws

Carson said the distracted driving law will evolve over time. The history of Georgia’s seat belt law suggests he may be right.

In 1984, state lawmakers required motorists to secure children under 3 years old in car seats. Children age 3 and 4 had to be restrained by seat belts or in car seats.

Four years later, lawmakers expanded mandatory seat belts to all front-seat occupants. But only drivers were subject to a fine – passengers were subject only to warning citations – and then only if they were pulled over for another offense, like speeding or drunken driving.

Failure to wear a seat belt remained a secondary violation until 1996, when Georgia allowed officers to pull over and cite motorists solely for a seat belt violation. But pickup truck drivers were exempt from the law until 2010.

Safety advocates hope Georgia’s distracted driving law will also get stronger over time.

Carson is already talking about revisiting a provision that treats teenage and adult drivers the same under the law. Previously, teens were prohibited from using wireless devices at all while driving. Now they’ll be able to use their devices hands-free, like adults.

Carson said he’ll consider renewing the prohibition on teen cell phone use next year. But he’s in no rush to make wholesale changes to the law. He wants to give it time to play out, and he wants to collect data to inform any future revisions.

Imperfect as it is, Carson believes the hands-free law will make Georgia roads safer. Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia have adopted similar hands-free laws. Thirteen of them saw decreased traffic fatalities within two years, and six of them saw decreases of more than 20 percent.

“The numbers don’t lie,” Carson said. “It saves lives.”

Over time, Carson believes the law will prompt a much-needed “cultural change” in attitudes about the acceptability of using electronic devices while driving – a change like the one that has made drunken driving less socially acceptable.

“I have told a number of distracted driving advocates that getting the bill signed by Gov. [Nathan] Deal is not the ending,” he said. “I’d say it’s a beginning.”

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