What's legal and what isn't in the Georgia distracted driving bill? Ga. House Bill 673 would require drivers to use hands-free technology when using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. The goal is to pry our eyes away from cell phones while we’re behind the wheel – behavior experts say has led to a spike in fatalities on Georgia highways . But “hands free” isn’t as clear cut as it sounds. The bill prohibits anyone from handling a “wireless telecommunication device” whi
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Torpy at Large: A driver-cellphone crackdown shouldn't be a tough call

This cellphone legislation may hit a lot of us hard.

Many days after work, I return calls during my half-hour drive home.

I grab my iPhone, tell it to “Call Mom!” (or whomever), tap the speaker button, put the phone on my lap and yack. It’s a good way fill what one might consider to be dead time.

Now, a bill sponsored by state Rep. John Carson will make that illegal. Basically, under the proposal, if you hold a cellphone or tap it while driving, you are breaking the law.

Why would Carson, a Republican from Cobb County, want to make such conduct illegal? Well, if you’ve driven around metro Atlanta you know the score. Drivers have the attention span of fruit flies on Ritalin.

Traffic lanes are ambiguous, turn signals are occasional and traffic lights are suggestions.

Part of the reason is we are all in a hurry and increasingly don’t care a lick about fellow humans while behind the wheel. But the more prevalent theory is that we are distracted. We can’t keep our eyes from our so-called smartphones, even when piloting 5,000-pound behemoths at 100 feet per second. (That’s 68 mph BTW.)

Carson’s study committee highlighted a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that said, “Unlike distractions such as eating, selecting pre-set radio stations, etc., electronic devices are more interactive and require greater time commitment and continual attention, response and manipulation to obtain a desired result.”

Sending or receiving an average text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds, the study said. It’s like driving blindfolded for the distance of a football field at 55 mph.

But who keeps it at just 55?

This increasing mass distraction has driven up the body count in Georgia by one third.

In 2014, 1,170 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents. Two years later, in 2016, 1,554 died. During that period, smartphones became commonplace and data usage exploded. Last year, there was a slight drop in the state’s death toll — 1, 534. That means we’ve arrived at a new, grisly normal.

Traffic fatalities rose by a third in Georgia from 2014 to 2016. Experts say distracted driving is a leading cause. (JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM)

“This one we have to get right, this impacts 5 million drivers,” Carson told a legislative committee last week. “This is the DUI law of our generation.”

He’s looking for a “cultural change,” like how people now click seat belts without thinking or how DUI jokes are no longer funny.

Every legislative committee needs a devil’s advocate, so that’s where fellow Cobb County Republican Rep. Ed Setzler steps in.

Setzler, according to his bio, is a former soldier “committed to the principles of personal freedom.”

State Rep. Ed Setzler, a Cobb County Republican, demonstrates to his colleagues in a Georgia legislative committee what he won’t be able to do anymore if a distracted driving law is passed. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Setzler, who sponsored a bill hoping to ease the penalties on rolling stops, held his phone to his ear, leaned back and reached out with his free hand to grab an imaginary steering wheel. He told the committee that long, boring rides on I-16 will seem longer and more boring without talking with somebody.

“Do you want to make this illegal too?” asked Setzler, saying he was speaking for millions of drivers. He added that talking hands-free on a cellphone is about as dangerous as holding one.

Studies agree. One researcher from the University of Sussex was quoted saying, “Hands-free can be equally distracting because conversations cause the driver to visually imagine what they’re talking about.”

Setzler continued, pretending to text with his phone: “If this is six times more dangerous (than talking on a cell), then why are we treating it the same?”

Carson’s goal is simply to get phones out of drivers’ hands. And, maybe more importantly, out from in front of their eyes.

» RELATED: Rep. Betty Price says she opposed drive-talk restrictions ‘because they ignored my bill last year’

A Georgia State Patrol commander at the hearing said cops have a hard time determining whether a person plucking at a phone is texting — which has been illegal for years — or is making a phone call, which is currently OK.

The State Patrol officer told committee members this will mean “markedly more” citations.

I decided to poll some drivers and found a fairly sizable majority think A) It’s crazy out there and B) Something needs to be done.

Colleen Todd drives 66 miles each day to and from her home in Gainesville and her job for a trucking company in Alpharetta. She likes the proposed law.

“People multitask so much these days that you worry about the person behind you,” she said, adding she was almost rear-ended by a truck. She glanced nervously in her rear-view mirror and saw the truck driver on his phone.

Carson’s committee report said rear-end accidents were up 25 percent between 2014 and 2016.

The city is hoping to push the rest of the state to follow suit

Lance Williams drives a box truck making deliveries for a living. He sits up high and sees what other drivers do. It’s kind of scary.

“People watch videos while driving with their knees,” he said. “It’s out of hand. Something needs to be done.”

Catherine Bernard, a lawyer and libertarian-leaning Republican, said police have plenty of laws to enforce, such as reckless driving, failure to maintain a lane, etc. She said the cellphone law will be just another excuse for cops to pull over drivers.

“It’s weird,” she said. “We have a Republican majority, but why do we keep seeing these nanny-state bills?”

State Rep. Bill Hitchens, a Republican from near Savannah and former head of the State Patrol, understands the argument that the lonely drive down I-16 in Middle Georgia is not like I-285 in metro Atlanta during rush hour.

“But you can’t put it in the law that you can do it on I-16 but not in other places,” he said.

Not long ago, Hitchens’ wife got rear-ended by some North Carolinian who was lost and gazing at his GPS.

I spoke with Josh Franks outside a QT gas station. He’s a district manager from Las Vegas in town for a wedding. Nevada’s law is similar to the one Georgia wants to pass.

Jenkins admits to being on his phone “an ungodly amount,” but he rarely uses hands-free technology.

He said he knows better. But, he added with a smile, “It will take me getting a ticket to break my behavior.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.