Kenley Speece, 15, and Peyton Lawrence, 15, right to left, participate in a texting and driving simulation with their classmates observing during a driver’s education class at Nathan’s Driving School, Inc. Georgia’s new distracted driving law will allow teens to use their phones for some purposes while driving - asl long as they use hands-free technology. Jenna Eason / Jenna.Eason@coxinc.com
It's a big adjustment for adults. But for the youngest drivers, the law amounts to a new-found freedom – one that carries risks.
“The research shows that hands-free isn’t distraction free,” said Garrett Townsend, public affairs director for AAA in Georgia.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers – in part because they are inexperienced drivers. But the National Safety Council says phones and other distractions also play a role.
Experts say distracted driving contributed to rising traffic fatalities across the nation. Last year, 1,549 people died on Georgia roads alone – about a third more than 2014. Nearly 800 have died so far this year, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
That rising death toll was a big reason lawmakers passed a new distracted driving law similar to those adopted in 15 other states and the District of Columbia.
Police said the old texting ban was hard to enforce – they often couldn’t tell whether adults were texting or dialing a phone number, which was allowed under the law. Likewise, they couldn’t tell if someone holding a phone was 17 and violating the law or 18 and in compliance.
Supporters say the new law simplifies enforcement – if you're holding the phone, you're breaking the law, no matter what you're doing with it or how old you are, though there are some exceptions.
“I think it’s a wonderful law. It’s something we needed,” said Rachel Marie Lewit Galotti, executive vice president of Nathan’s Driving School in Atlanta. “Unfortunately, as a society, we’re very dependent on our technology. We need to be forced to put it down.”
Still, some teens and their parents are nervous.
Kenley Speece, 15, a rising Lakeside High School sophomore, has been driving with her parents for months. Though she loves her phone, she can’t imagine using it while driving.
Her mother, Kim Speece, welcomes that caution.
“The repercussions of what can happen, the fact that they are a new driver — adding a distraction to that could be a fatal problem,” Kim Speece said.
“It’s a hard thing as a parent,” she said. “You hope they do everything right. But even if they do everything right, it can still all be taken away by a distracted driver.”
Kate Lawrence and Kenley Speece were among 17 teens who attended a class at Nathan’s Driving School this week. They learned about distractions caused not only by phones, but by eating food, talking with friends and other activities.
“I’ve been on I-85 sitting in traffic, and this guy was sitting with a book on his steering wheel, reading,” the instructor, Daniel Reilly, told the students. “People think they’re that good at driving.”
Kate’s mother, Patti Lawrence, thinks the message is sinking in.
“They’re being educated so much more,” she said. “It’s such a hot-button issue right now, especially with the new law.”
Patti Lawrence supports the law. But she wishes it didn’t allow teens drivers to use their phones. Townsend said AAA also would support reinstating the ban on teenagers using electronics while driving.
The new law's sponsor, state Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, has said he'll consider such a change in next year's legislative session. In the meantime, Lewit Galotti has some advice for parents worried about teenager drivers' phone use: Put down your own phone.
“Parents have to role-model properly. Don’t ‘Do what I say, not what I do,’” she said. “That doesn’t work with teenagers.”
Georgia’s new distracted driving law
The Hands-Free Georgia Act took effect July 1. Among other things, it prohibits holding or supporting, with any part of the body, a wireless telecommunications device or stand-alone electronic device (for example, an iPod).
For past coverage, visit www.myajc.com.