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Georgia hands-free law: Nearly 1,000 tickets and warnings in 4 days

Sara Lee Parker’s car is, more often than not, her office too.

An intown Atlanta Realtor for Keller Williams, she spends each day driving from property to property, client to client. She estimates that, before July 1, she was on her phone — making calls, pecking out texts, emails and contracts — about 75 percent of the time.

“It’s going to be a little challenging to break the habit, I think,” Parker said during a phone interview that took place, naturally, while she was driving around town.

“It’s [like] Pavlov,” she said, referring to a famous Russian scientist and his famous experiments with conditioned canine responses.

Georgia’s new distracted driving law, which prohibits motorists from physically holding their cellphones, has made work a little more complicated — and may require more conditioning to get used to.

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

Parker, who has used Bluetooth and a dashboard mount to get by thus far, is hardly alone. Many metro Atlanta drivers may be in for a rude awakening come Monday, the start of the first non-holiday work week since the Hands-Free Georgia Act went into effect.

June 21, 2018 Atlanta - A driver apparently uses a phone while driving in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, June 21, 2018. 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 (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)

More cars means more traffic, which could mean more “free time” behind the wheel.

“It’s possible we’ll see more use when people are back to their usual driving routines, but it’s hard to say,” Gwinnett County police Sgt. Jake Smith said.

Compiling a clear picture of Georgia’s compliance with the new law has, thus far, not been simple. The availability of statistics has varied greatly from agency to agency, and evaluating the significance of those that have been provided isn’t easy.

The Georgia Department of Public Safety, which primarily patrols interstates, said its troopers had written a total of 179 citations and 795 formal warnings through Wednesday.

An Atlanta Police Department spokesman said the agency wrote 86 citations for hands-free violations over the same time period. The Lawrenceville Police Department said it had issued 25 citations.

Many other agencies, from the Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinnett police departments to the one Athens-Clarke County, said they didn’t have any statistics yet. Many said they only update their traffic statistics on a monthly basis, if that.

Though there is no formal grace period built into the law, many departments are also focusing on “education” and issuing only verbal warnings during the first weeks of enforcement. Most do not track such warnings, making it hard to quantify the sheer number of potential violators that have been stopped thus far.

Troopers pulled over numerous drivers on first day of hands-free law (WSBTV.com)

Michele Barnes thinks that, whatever the number of tickets written, it’s probably not enough.

“I just don’t see how they’re gonna stop the problem,” said the 74-year-old, who has lived near Austell Road in Cobb County for more than 40 years. ” … I think it’s gone on too long, too far. I don’t think you can re-train these people who think they’re above everything.”

Tashie Perez would tend to agree.

“I see people still,” she said this week while sitting on the Decatur Square with her kids. “Today, I went to the gym to do yoga. At the four-way stop, everybody has a phone.”

Violations carry a $50 fine for the first offense. While motorists can’t physically hold their phones while driving, they can still use GPS and navigation apps, if they’re using a mount or other hands-free technology. Voice-to-text and hands-free calling features are also permitted, as is the use of built-in stereos and dashboard entertainment centers.

The law applies even while stopped at a red light, a stop sign or while stuck in the grueling grind of metro Atlanta traffic.

June 21, 2018 Atlanta - A driver apparently uses a phone while driving in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, June 21, 2018. 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 (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)

Rep. John Carson, the Marietta Republican who authored the legislation, has called alternately called it “the DUI issue of our generation” and compared it to the rolling out of Georgia’s seatbelt law.

Both perceptions and habits have to be broken in order to save lives, he said during a press conference this week. Motor vehicle deaths in Georgia jumped by about one-third between 2014 and 2016, and authorities have largely contributed that spike to distracted driving.

Rich Levitan lost his teen daughter, Merritt, to a distracted driver on July 2, 2013. Everybody, he said during the press conference with Carson, has grown accustomed to using their phone while driving.

That also means “everybody has developed a habit that can take a life,” he said.

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