Daniel Reilly, a driver education specialist at Nathan's Driving School, teaches a class to teens preparing to get their driver's licenses, and he speaks about distracted driving by teens and adults.

Teens get new freedom under Georgia’s distracted driving law

If everything goes her way, Kate Lawrence is months away from getting her driver’s license – and, with it, the kind of freedom teenagers dream about.

But there’s one freedom she has no intention of taking advantage of, even though Georgia law now says it’s OK: the right to talk on her cell phone while driving, as long as she uses hands-free technology.

“I definitely wouldn’t,” the 15-year-old rising sophomore at the Atlanta International School said. “My parents would not even let me.”

A lot of parents hope their teenagers show that kind of resolve when they get behind the wheel, now that restrictions specifically aimed at young drivers have been lifted. To the chagrin of some parents and safety advocates, Georgia’s new distracted driving law allows teens to use their phones while driving for the first time in years.

Previously, adults were prohibited from texting and driving, while motorists under 18 couldn’t use electronics at all. Under the Hands-Free Georgia Act, which took effect July 1, teens and adults are treated the same – they can talk and send messages while driving, as long as they’re not holding their phones.

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
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.”

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