July 1st is a landmark day for transportation safety in Georgia. The highly ballyhooed, awaited and analyzed Hands-Free Georgia Act goes into effect and drivers everywhere are scrambling to figure out just what they can and cannot do. AJC’s David Wickert has a good, concise breakdown on the basics of the law. Very basically, drivers can no longer hold phones and drive. That is the biggest change.
Smilin’ Mark McKay and I recently hosted a two-hour show show on this very subject on News 95.5/AM750 WSB. Listeners packed the phone lines with questions about what they could and couldn’t do and on enforcement. Almost everyone was completely in favor of the law — in fact, plenty thought it does not go far enough.
We spoke with state Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, co-author of this seismic new bill that amended the 2010 anti-texting law. Carson said the initial bill allowed for only one swipe to answer a phone call, but the final product is slightly more lenient.
“The biggest misconception is that Georgia drivers will not be able to use their phones,” Carson explained. “What the law says is that you physically cannot hold it or support it.”
Drivers soon will be no longer allowed to cradle or hold a phone or other electronic wireless device behind the wheel, unless we are making an emergency call. Georgians cannot use more than one button to answer or use a mobile phone. And they cannot reach for one, if doing so requires undoing a seat belt or standing up.
Drivers are allowed to use GPS, voice-to-text features, and can make and receive phone calls hands-free. Single-ear headphones and Bluetooth pieces are acceptable aids for this. If a driver doesn’t have a Bluetooth-capable car or device, using an earbud with a mic on it (like the ones that come with most phones) is a good workaround. The bill also still allows for use of in-car navigation, communication and entertainment systems.
The no-brainer part of the bill is straightforward: Along with already-banned texting, drivers can no longer answer emails or other queries, watch videos or record from behind the wheel. Believe it or not, these actions are still legal, technically, until July 1st. But don’t do it!
As long as someone is legally parked, they are allowed to do these things. But “legally parked” does not mean at a stoplight or in gridlocked traffic. Also, law enforcement, emergency and utility workers are still allowed to use their phones.
One big benefit of the law change may be that enforcing the original anti-texting law will be more enforceable. Now officers can easily see if someone is holding their phone or not, no matter what they are actually doing. But the Georgia State Patrol knows this is a learning process for drivers.
“While we intend to issue a great number of written warnings and have a lot of conversations on the benefits of going hands-free, each particular interaction is being left up to the discretion of the trooper,” GSP Capt. Mark Perry said.
“If the trooper feels that a citation is warranted for a particular situation (crashes with injuries/fatalities etc.), then a citation will be issued. But by and large, the first few weeks and months will be focused on education about the new law.”
Whether state law enforcement agencies go easy or not at first, we all have a duty to keep our hands off of our phones and carefully use them in the situations the law allows.
Carson said that 13 of the 15 states that already have similar laws have seen at least a 16 percent decrease in traffic deaths. GDOT says that 1,549 people died on Georgia’s roads in 2017. If we all do our jobs and obey the Hands-Free Georgia Act, that number could decrease by almost 250 per year.
Penalties for breaking the law aren’t steep. First-time offenders get one point on their license and a $50 fine. The second offense is two points and $100 and the third is three points and $150.
Over the next three weeks leading up to the July 1st start date, we will explore tools to make using phones in the car more hands-free, how drivers in other states with similar laws behave, and what employers will have to do to make their fleet drivers legal. Be sure to check back for that.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive airborne anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com