Bill would let Georgia drivers hold their phones at stoplights

Georgia motorists would be able to handle their phones at stoplights and stop signs under a bill pending in the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 356 would grant an exception to the state’s distracted driving law, which prohibits motorists from handling their phones while driving. SB 356 would allow drivers to handle their phones when their vehicle “is at a full and complete stop.”

At two hearings this week, state Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, said the bill would address a common complaint of motorists — waiting behind someone at a stoplight who doesn’t see the light is green because their head is down, watching their phone in their lap.

He said allowing drivers to legally hold their phone while they’re stopped would allow them to keep their head up while they scroll the phone. Then they can see the changing light, he said.

Ginn said he opposes allowing motorists to hold their phones while their vehicle is in motion.

“The impetus of this bill is to keep our traffic moving,” he said.

Representatives of law enforcement, insurance companies, doctors and other groups opposed the bill at a hearing Thursday. They said it would lead to more distraction and danger on Georgia roads.

“There are still dangers when you’re focused on that cellphone” at a stoplight,” said Butch Ayers, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “When you’re holding that device in your hand, you’re oblivious to what’s going on.”

In 2018 Georgia lawmakers approved a distracted driving law that prohibits motorists from handling their phones behind the wheel except in limited circumstances, such as dialing 911 to report an emergency.

ExploreGeorgia’s current law on cellphones in the car: What’s legal, what’s not?

Safety advocates say phone use is a leading cause of distracted driving. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Georgia traffic fatalities had fallen, and traffic safety experts said the new law was a contributing factor.

But fatalities have risen during the pandemic. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatalities nationwide rose 12% to an estimated 31,720 in the first nine months of 2021. They rose 12.2% to an estimated 1,330 in Georgia.

A separate NHTSA report found speeding, distracted driving, failure to wear seat belts, and drug and alcohol use may play a role in rising traffic fatalities.

At Thursday’s hearing, senators who support the bill said they want to focus enforcement on motorists who hold their phones while their vehicles are moving. They said Georgia can’t outlaw every behavior that might cause an accident.

“If you start going down the path to outlaw everything that could be dangerous, we’ll no longer be a free state,” said state Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton.

State Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, who spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, opposed the bill.

“What we always have to do when we talk about safety is err on the side of caution,” Robertson said.

Ginn submitted a proposed substitute bill that would clarify that motorists could not hold their phones anyplace traffic is stopped, only at a traffic control device. The bill did not get a vote Thursday.