A driver apparently uses a phone while driving in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, June 21, 2018. The Hands-Free Georgia Act, which went into effect July 1, prohibits motorists from holding their phones or other electronic devices while driving. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

State reminds distracted driving violators: Warnings won’t last forever

A little more than a week into Georgia’s new hands-free driving law, state officials said enforcement efforts are going as planned: far more warnings than citations for behind-the-wheel violators, more education than punishment while everyone learns to adjust.

But authorities also want to remind people that there’s no formal grace period written into the law — and that they won’t hand out free passes forever.

“The message to the public now is to understand that, as we go forward, the likelihood of warnings being issued is going to decrease,” Robert Hydrick, communications director for the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said Tuesday. “If you haven’t made the switch to hands-free, now’s the time. Because the excuse of ‘I didn’t know about the law’ is probably not going to carry a lot of weight” moving forward.

IN-DEPTH: What’s legal and what’s not under Georgia’s distracted driving law

The Hands-Free Georgia Act — which, with very few exceptions, bars drivers from physically holding or handling their cellphones unless legally parked — went into effect July 1. By Tuesday morning, the 10th day of enforcement, the Georgia State Patrol had issued 320 citations and written more than 1,000 warnings for related violations.

State troopers primarily patrols Georgia’s interstates. Hands-free statistics from large local jurisdictions in metro Atlanta have been hard to come by, with many departments saying they’re issuing verbal warnings for now.

The Atlanta Police Department is one agency that has provided some enforcement numbers. It reported 86 citations written during the first four days under the new law.

The penalty for a driver’s first violation is $50 and one point on their license. The second citation is $100 and two points, and so on.

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.

The penalties are meant less as revenue drivers and more as deterrents, officials have said. Motor vehicle deaths in Georgia jumped by about one-third between 2014 and 2016, and authorities have largely attributed that spike to distracted driving.

Sgt. Brandon Brown works out of State Patrol Post 51 in Gwinnett County. He recently gave a warning to a woman after watching her send an email while driving right next to him. But, generally speaking, he said he’s seen fewer folks fiddling with their phones over the last week-plus.

How much habits are truly changing wont be known for a couple of months, “when the ‘new’ wears off,” Brown said.

Banning the handling of cellphones isn’t a cure-all, and Hydrick is quick to point out that talking on the phone is still dangerous while driving, even if done via speakerphone or Bluetooth.

But it’s a start.

“I think they’ve all heard about” the law, Hydrick said. “But it’s habit. You’re driving down the road and that beep goes off, whether it’s a ring or a notification or a message, it’s just instinct to pick it up. Especially if you’re waiting to hear from somebody.”

The new law is about breaking drivers of that habit, he said.

“There’s not a phone call or a text message that’s more important than your life or the life of anybody else.”

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