Few citations written on Day 1 of Georgia’s hands-free driving law

AJC reporter David Wickert talks to readers about Georgia's new distracted driving law. He tells readers what they are allowed to do and what's prohibited under the law.

John Carson, the state representative who authored Georgia's new hands-free driving law, has often said he wanted to spark a culture change — to create a new world where driving while looking at your phone has as much of a stigma as driving drunk or not wearing a seat belt.

If early, mostly anecdotal reports are any indication, Georgia may very well be headed in that direction.

The Georgia State Patrol, which is primarily responsible for patrolling Georgia’s interstates, said it was still working on compiling numbers for Monday, the first workday under the restrictions. But it only issued 34 citations and 98 written warnings on Sunday, statewide.

ExploreIN-DEPTH: Safety advocates: Georgia’s hands-free driving law a first step

Other metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies seemed impressed thus far by drivers' commitment to phone-free driving.

“I know we’ve written a few [warnings],” Gwinnett County police Sgt. Jake Smith said Monday, “but generally people seem to be taking the new law seriously.”

Added Norcross police Chief Bill Grogan: “Nothing concrete. But I’ve driven around the county this morning for a number of meetings and have been pleasantly surprised how few violations I have seen.”

In this June 21 photo, A driver apparently uses a phone while driving as Sgt. First Class Chris Stallings monitors motorists in downtown Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
In this June 21 photo, A driver apparently uses a phone while driving as Sgt. First Class Chris Stallings monitors motorists in downtown Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The Hands-Free Georgia Act — which represents the most significant change to Georgia traffic laws in a generation — was signed by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year and went into effect Sunday. It prohibits drivers from handling their phones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel, with very few exceptions.

ExploreMORE: What’s legal and what’s not under Georgia’s hands-free driving law

Drivers can still use GPS and navigation apps as long as they are not physically holding their phone while doing it. Voice-to-text and calling features are OK though, to be clear, calls must be placed on speakerphone or via Bluetooth. Drivers must be “legally parked” to handle their phone, meaning the law still applies while stopped at red lights or stop signs.

The penalties are $50 for the first citation; $100 for the second; $150 for the the third and so on. There is no formal grace period, though many law enforcement agencies have opted to issue warnings for now.

The Georgia State Patrol plans to focus on education until Oct. 1, officials have said, but began concerted patrols Sunday.

Rockdale County resident Navid Ahsan was among those nabbed. He admitted holding his phone while using his GPS, according to Channel 2 Action News — but also called the hands-free law long overdue.

“We should have done that a long time ago,” he told Channel 2.

The law, which began with Rep. Carson attempting to figure out why the state's car insurance premiums were soaring, is intended to save lives. Motor vehicle deaths in Georgia jumped by about one-third between 2014 and 2016.

Marietta police spokesman Chuck McPhilamy said his department is enforcing the law “effective immediately” but did not issue any citations on Sunday. Stats weren’t yet available for Monday.

A spokeswoman from the city of Chamblee said the new law “hasn’t been an issue as of yet.” In Suwanee, the local police department had issued no citations and only three written warnings by midday Monday, Capt. Cass Mooney said.

The newness of the law — and the July 4 holiday week possibly meaning fewer commuters thus far — have likely played roles in increasing compliance.

Carson, a Republican from Marietta, has said the Hands-Free Georgia Act is as much about raising awareness as enforcement. There seems to already be plenty of the former.

“We’ve done a very good job … of getting the word out,” Carson said during a Monday afternoon radio interview on News 95.5 and AM750 WSB.

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