Gridlock Guy: Five years in, how effective has the Hands-Free Georgia Act been?

A driver apparently uses a phone while driving as Sgt. First Class Chris Stallings monitors motorists in downtown Atlanta on Thursday. In one week, police officers across the state will begin enforcing the Hands-Free Georgia Act, which prohibits motorists from holding their phones or other electronic devices while driving. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A driver apparently uses a phone while driving as Sgt. First Class Chris Stallings monitors motorists in downtown Atlanta on Thursday. In one week, police officers across the state will begin enforcing the Hands-Free Georgia Act, which prohibits motorists from holding their phones or other electronic devices while driving. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

At first glance, the hype around the 2018 Hands-Free Georgia Act, which amended and bolstered Georgia’s 2010 anti-texting and driving law, may have exceeded the results.

For all the concern and hand-wringing, are fewer people actually driving distracted? That is debatable, but statistics show that the five-year old amendments have at least made the sharp rise in the number of crash deaths in Georgia in the last three years less steep.

“I think the biggest thing is that the number of distracted driving-related fatalities in Georgia has gone down,” Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Communications Director Robert Hydrick told the AJC and 95.5 WSB.

Hydrick said that there were 82 fatal crashes in the state involving at least one distracted driver in 2017 — the last full year before amendments. That number decreased by almost half to 43 deaths in 2019, the law’s first full year. Distracted-driving crash deaths rose to 56 in 2021, as overall roadway fatalities increased in all categories, Hydrick said.

Hydrick explained that both speeding and inebriated driving increased during the pandemic shutdown, factoring in to the higher crash death totals in Georgia.

So while driving has overall become more lethal since 2020, distracted driving has become less of a factor in those wrecks in Georgia. With the 2018 tightening of the original 2010 texting ban, several more actions on mobile devices became illegal for most drivers: holding a phone, watching and shooting videos, touching the mobile device for any reason besides dialing a call or adjusting GPS apps.

If no one changed their behaviors after July 1st, 2018, then logic would state that more crashes would have distracted drivers, because the definition of such became broader.

The statistics show more success for the law than my anecdotal analysis does. In comparison to five years ago, many drivers seem to just blatantly hold their phones behind the wheel. And often. Idling at a traffic light phone-in-hand is bad enough, but so many motorists are still unabashedly thumbing and steering. In 2023, this is even more obvious to me than five years ago.

My first judgment about drivers who are weaving and constantly tapping the brakes is no longer that they are under the influence, or unskilled, or tired, or timid. My first assumption is that they are deprioritizing piloting a 3,000-pound, combustible metal wedge by choosing to message or scroll. I am almost always right.

This has led me to believe that the newness of the Hands-Free Georgia Act has worn off and, likely, so has the effectiveness. I asked Hydrick how much the state and local agencies enforce the law and had the tactics in doing so changed. Did the citizen outcry about policing in the summer of 2020 change the enforcement strategy? Are staffing shortages and the recent rises in violent crime making this law have less priority? His response shocked me.

“Before the hands-free law was passed, we averaged about 10 to 11 thousand convictions per year for distracted driving. The last two years (2021 and 2022) we’ve had over 50 thousand convictions (per year).” A stark increase. And that is despite the above-mentioned obstacles.

There were roughly 57,000 convictions in 2021, as Georgia road fatality numbers began to rise again. Convictions did decrease to only about 50,000 last year. Hydrick did not name a particular factor for which to explain the decrease.

Hydrick explained what other lawmakers, activists, and law enforcement have said to me before: The 2010 anti-texting law was extremely difficult to enforce. “The previous law allowed people to talk on their phone while driving (and holding their phone)],” Hydrick said. “So they had a difficult time proving it in court.” Any driver pulled over in Georgia for texting and driving from July 2010 to July 2018 could just tell the officer that they were dialing a number to call someone.

The newer standard — hands-free in almost every instance — made the enforcement much more cut and dry. Distracted driving citations are way up. But is that really a deterrent?

In the months leading up to July 1st, 2018, there were numerous local news stories and ad campaigns to educate and warn Georgia drivers about the stricter law. I spent a whole month writing about different angles of the law. Making radical changes to two things so personal to people — their phones and their vehicles — warranted the barrage. People seemed to take notice and either worked to get legal or schemed to break the law less obviously.

The state tried to assuage fears about over-policing and tried to be sympathetic to people adjusting to the change. There were local and statewide grace periods after July 1st, 2018. And the penalties for offenses were and are still extremely light. The first three offenses are one, two, and three points on a license and fines are, respectively, $50, $100, and $150. Drivers illegally park at higher financial risk.

Maybe the lack of interest in obeying Georgia’s distracted-driving rules falls in line with the overall decrease in driver IQ and increase in selfish behavior. As Hydrick said, many mistakes factor into the danger we see on today’s streets.

In the half-decade since Rep. John Carson’s (R-Marietta) amendment to the state’s original law, there have been efforts to add to the rules or bolster the penalties. On the other side, in 2022, State Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) tried to legalize using the phone while the car is stopped in traffic. The latter effort did not gain much support. But even adding to the law five years ago took plenty of compromise and faced healthy opposition.

Wary lawmakers do not want what they view as government overreach. And they do not want to lay a burden they fear is too heavy for citizens to bear.

Georgia’s letter of the law is a low standard for distracted driving. Considering the amount of danger and responsibility we each possess every time we drive, distractions should be an exception and not a legal rule.

I wholeheartedly supported the 2018 changes, but it is not a perfect law and it certainly has not proven to be enough of a deterrent for distracted drivers. As Hydrick pointed out to me, neither have speeding or drunk-driving laws.

But the numbers in the last five years speak for themselves. The Hands-Free Georgia Act has helped save lives. That in and of itself is a success.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at