On Sunday, Georgia motorists will enter a new era of driving in which touching their mobile phones with any part of their bodies while in the driver’s seat is considered illegal.
The Hands-Free Georgia Act officially goes into effect on July 1, banning cellphone users from holding or touching their phones to talk, text, watch movies, record video, etc., while driving. Drivers can use voice commands to make calls or send and receive texts. They can also use GPS systems as long as they are not holding the phone. Emergency calls are exempt from the law.
Across the metro area, the Hands-Free Act has sent some drivers frantically running to stores or going online to purchase devices that will get them in compliance. For most drivers, particularly those of older cars that do not come equipped with hands-free technology, that means springing for a Bluetooth-enabled headset and a car mount to hold their phones.
But for other drivers, the law has brought a less stressed response — the decision to use their commute as a time to decompress and avoid the intrusive texts and phone calls that have increasingly taken over their lives.
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“Half the time, I don’t even know where my phone is because I don’t care. People get frustrated with me,” said Spiro Winsett, 51, of Locust Grove. Winsett, a production supervisor, spends a lot of time as a passenger when he’s going from location to location as part of a production crew. When he does commute in his Mazda, he usually tosses the cellphone on the passenger seat next to him and ignores it.
He does, however, use his GPS. “That would be a time when I may want to touch it,” said Winsett, noting that he will likely invest in a holder to mount his phone.
Sidney Maurice, 18, of Marietta already had some experience with hands-free driving as Georgia has had a teenage-driver cellphone ban since 2010. She has always kept her phone in a magnetic car mount that fits into her CD player. She enjoys listening to music while driving, but her 2009 Nissan Murano is a standard model.
“I would love to be able to update my (audio) system with something that has Bluetooth built into it, but I am a teenager with no money,” she said, referring to a solution that would allow her to use voice commands to play music from her phone. “We will have to create playlists for our longer rides and stick to the radio for shorter rides.”
For GPS, she will make sure she has her destination programmed before pulling out of the driveway. If she gets an urgent call or text, she will just pull over and deal with it, she said. When it comes to ensuring safety, that is probably the best action.
Georgia is now one of 16 states (along with the District of Columbia) that bans all drivers from talking on a hand-held cellphone. Despite the growing number of states introducing distracted driving laws, a 2014 study by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine concluded that it was unclear if those laws were having the desired impact on safety. In Georgia, distracted driving was noted as one of the top three reasons for the rising death toll on Georgia roads. Locals interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they appreciate and understand the intent of the new law, but many were still confused about exactly what it means.
“There is a group of motorists out there that still have a lot of questions about the law,” said Garrett Townsend, Georgia public affairs director for AAA — The Auto Club Group. “Then there is a group that I think is almost oblivious because there has been some misconception that there is a grace period, which isn’t true. They are going to be in for a rude awakening.”
While drivers of older or standard model cars have purchased headsets and car mounts to get in compliance, even drivers who have cars fully equipped with infotainment systems may need to get up to speed. If they have never used those systems, they will definitely have a learning curve.
“I would say start now. This isn’t going away. It is here and it could potentially be the first step in a move towards a stricter law,” Townsend said.
Local business owner Lauren Fernandez, president and operating partner of Chicken Salad Chick, drives about six hours in a 10-hour workday to oversee operations at 10 locations in Georgia. She does a lot of business in her car and uses a car mount and USB port for hands-free communication. Even though her car has a Bluetooth-enabled system, she prefers the more reliable USB connection. She also relies heavily on Siri.
“I use Siri a lot and people make fun of me,” said Fernandez. But she draws the line at using Siri to send text messages. Siri garbles the many acronyms they use internally to communicate, and trying to edit an incorrect message before sending it is too much of a hassle. “If I am in the car and I get a text, you are going to get a call back from me,” Fernandez said.
For Ayana Stallings of Ellenwood, a hands-free solution wasn’t as clear-cut. Her preparations included racing to a Verizon store during a recent lunch break to purchase a new Bluetooth headset before a business trip. She lost her old headset several months ago and was afraid she would not be in compliance with the new law upon returning to Atlanta on Sunday.
“I didn’t completely understand the law, and things that are going around on Facebook are not true,” Stallings said. “I feel like July 1 is going to be a free-for-all and everybody is going to be out looking to give tickets.”
With her new Bluetooth headset, she will be able to answer and make phone calls hands-free, but she hasn’t yet figured out how to use GPS without holding the phone while driving in her 2004 Nissan Maxima. “I’m going to have to go back to Verizon on Monday and deal with it all over again,” she said. “At this point, I’m like let’s just get a new car.”