STATESBORO - Many people shed tears in recent months as the General Assembly debated legislation designed to crack down on distracted driving and stem a tide of death of Georgia highways.
Families wept as they told of losing loved ones to drivers paying more attention to their phones than the road in front of them. Lawmakers teared up as they described the toll of distracted driving, as measured in lives lost.
On Wednesday it was Gov. Nathan Deal’s turn. Surrounded by the families of five Georgia Southern University nursing students who died in a 2015 truck accident, the governor choked up as he described their efforts to win approval of House Bill 673.
“I know this legislation does not mend your broken hearts,” Deal said, pausing to collect himself. “But hopefully it will prevent the same kind of pain and tragedy being suffered by other families in the future.”
HB 673 prohibits motorists from handling their cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. When it takes effect July 1, it will be the most significant change in driving rules since lawmakers banned texting while driving in 2010.
The law also prohibits other behavior – like shooting video or watching movies while driving. Drivers can still talk on their phones and even text – as long as they use hands-free technology.
The legislation was inspired by a dramatic increase in traffic fatalities. Last year, 1,549 people died on Georgia highways – about one third more than in 2014.
Experts say many factors contributed to the rising death toll, including cheap gas and an improved economy that lured more drivers onto the road. But the proliferation of smart phones and their distracting apps is a key factor, they say.
In the 2015 accident, the five nursing students were struck by a truck driver who admitted he had been texting before the accident, though he denied he was using his phone at the time of the crash. Lobbying by the victims’ families played a big role in the legislative debate on HB 673.
Craig and Kathy Clark, whose daughter Emily was one of the five students killed, were among those who attended Wednesday’s bill-signing ceremony in Statesboro, home to Georgia Southern. Afterward, Kathy embraced others who had lost loved ones, clutching one of the pens Deal used to sign the bill.
“I’m ecstatic about it,” she said, nodding to the families around her. “We’re all in this together.”
“I am happy that we now have a hands-free Georgia,” Craig Clark said. “It’s going to take time to change people’s behavior.”
Critics have called HB 673 an example of government overreach. They say police should do a better job of enforcing the existing texting ban, rather than penalize law-abiding Georgians who talk on the phones.
Supporters say the existing texting ban is unenforceable because police can’t tell whether someone is texting or dialing a phone, which is legal.
“If you had a phone in your hand and said you were talking on it (instead of texting), they couldn’t do a thing to you,” said state Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, a retired state trooper.
Hitchens said the debate over distracted driving legislation reminds him of the resistance to DUI and seat belt laws.
“I feel good about it,” he said of the new legislation. “It’s the right thing to do.”
What is prohibited?
- Holding or supporting, with any part of the body, a wireless telecommunications device or stand-alone electronic device (for example, an iPod).
-Writing, sending or reading any text-based communication, including a text message, instant message, email or internet data while holding your device.
- Recording a video.