Kempner: Ignore call from boss? Georgia shifts on distracted driving


Georgia’s new distracted driving rules for sort of hands-free driving are confusing and watered down, but they give Georgians a legal excuse not to work in their cars and to ignore calls from bosses and customers.

Some workaholics won’t take the hint. Not when they spend all that time brewing in Atlanta’s traffic. Not when plenty of employees and business owners have learned that the virtual office is everywhere, every time and every moment.

Legislation passed this year by state lawmakers generally outlaws drivers from holding a cell phone or other electronic devices while driving. The hope is the law will make traveling in metro Atlanta and the rest of Georgia a little more sane.

VIDEO: Previous coverage on this issue

UPDATE: The change takes effect July 1 with backing from Gov. Nathan Deal, who signed the legislation in an emotional ceremony.

It was already illegal to physically text and email while driving in Georgia. Now, it also will be tougher to use your phone while driving, unless you have hands-free calling and can deal with glitchy Bluetooth.

Oddly, it still will be legal to physically dial a phone, but only in what seem the most unsafe ways. More on that in a moment.

Paige Slyman, a Marietta Realtor, told me he faces the choice of breaking the new law or losing referrals and sales.

“We are in an instant access, instant notification society,” he said. “If I don’t contact you back in three to five seconds, I’ve lost you.”

Prospective homebuyers move on to the next listing, he said. Prospective sellers find another Realtor.

At the same time, Slyman said, the changes create an advantage for him over some other real estate agents because he owns a recent model car with Bluetooth.

He said he often uses hand-free technology. But the system in his 2015 Lexus is cranky. It cuts him off sometimes when other calls come in. If he tries to say, “Call Todd mobile” it might call Ted’s cell instead.

“The voice recognition software right now is not developed enough to recognized my dialect,” he said.

And new prospects and some vendors aren’t in his contact list for voice commands. That’s a big deal when he sometimes spends a quarter of his day driving. On long trips he could use his phone in his car 100 times.

Even so, he sees the wisdom in tightening the rules. “I agree with the legislation. It is safe,” he said. “I should be doing less than I’m doing in the car and distracted driving in the car.”

While he predicted the change will make him think more about what he’s doing. He’s anxious to find safer options, but he doubts he’ll completely stop using his phone in ways that aren’t allowed.

“I don’t think it is going to change a thing, knowing my personality,” he said. “I have been doing this so long I don’t know how to not be in fifth gear all the time.”

I know the feeling. When I’ve driven and worked on my phone, I’ve tried to keep my eyes on the road and my attention on driving.

But I can’t kid myself. Holding a phone to my ear restricts my peripheral vision and limits how much and how quickly I turn my head to scan for trouble. I’m a worse driver when I’m on the phone, hands-free or not.

Surprisingly, the safety stats on this stuff aren’t as clear cut as I would have expected.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says, “There is growing evidence that talking on a cellphone increases crash risk, though the connection hasn’t been firmly established. Researchers have consistently linked texting or otherwise manipulating a cellphone to increased risk.”

A Virginia Tech researcher who used in-car video and sensor data found that overall hand-held cell phone increased risk of crashes and just talking on a hand-held device increased risk.

State Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth fought the new Georgia legislation. He told me he wasn’t against prohibiting most hand dialing.

But he said research shows there is much less of a risk difference between talking on a hand-held device versus talking hands-free, something he thinks was bulldozed over in the state’s debate.

“This bill works fine for people who have 2012 and newer years model cars and own $700 iPhones that they can talk to and does what it tells them to do, but it is tone deaf to the reality that millions of Georgians who can’t afford a $25,000 car or $700 iPhone.”

“Losing the ability to talk on the phone in their car takes away a tremendous benefit of mobile technology,” he said. “The ability to be productive in the one-hour commute to work and one hour home has transformed the productivity of regular people.”

State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, isn’t buying that. He said drivers can still use voice commands widely available on most cell phones. And if there’s a slight drop in the work others can do by phone, that’s worth the benefits.

“One person’s productivity is not worth risking someone else’s life,” he said.

“It brings in a fundamental question of what is the value of work productivity and public safety and protecting life and property.”

Meanwhile, what will be legal and illegal is confusing, though law enforcement officials suggested the changes will make it easier for officers to enforce.

Drivers could still physically dial their phones, but it will be illegal for them to hold the phone in any way, including their laps or crooks of their necks. They could, though, punch in numbers for a call while the phone is propped up in a cup holder or laying on the passenger seat or sitting on a dashboard bracket. Which sounds dangerous.

Carson had pushed to only allow one-touch dialing, but that and tougher penalties were stripped to win passage. (The new penalty for a first offense? $50.)

Jonathan Rupp, who co-directs the Injury Prevention Research Center at Emory, told me the biggest benefit of the legislation depends on whether there’s enough enforcement and public education.

“We have a chance to have a societal conversation,” he said.

Here’s a conversation starter: The Marietta Realtor I spoke with told me he’s never been in an accident tied to his use of a cell phone.

But he remembers one sudden traffic stop on Georgia 400 when he wasn’t on his phone. He saw in his rear-view mirror as another driver slammed into his car, her face looking down, apparently at her phone.

Emergency workers used the jaws of life to get her out of her car.

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