The Georgia State Patrol issued 8,389 citations for violations of the Hands-Free Georgia Act in the second half of 2018. That’s more than twice the number of citations issues for phone-related offenses in the first six months of the year, before the new law took effect. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia’s distracted driving enforcement picks up during holidays

After cutting motorists slack for months, state troopers began to aggressively enforce Georgia’s new distracted driving law during the holidays, statistics provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

The Georgia State Patrol issued 8,389 citations for violations of the Hands-Free Georgia Act — which took effect July 1 in the second half of 2018, with a big uptick in December. That’s more than double the citations written for cell-phone related offenses in the first six months of the year, when troopers wrote 3,827 tickets.

Meanwhile, traffic fatalities fell about 7 percent in 2018, preliminary statistics from the Georgia Department of Transportation show. Final 2018 fatality numbers may rise as more reports come in. But the state’s top traffic safety officer believes the new law has saved lives since it debuted six months ago.

VIDEO: About distracted driving

AJC reporter David Wickert talks to readers about Georgia's new distracted driving law. He tells readers what they are allowed to do and what's prohibited under the law.

The Hands-Free Georgia Act prohibits motorists from handling their cell phones while driving. It also prohibits watching videos and other behavior that safety experts say contributed to a rising toll of death on the nation’s highways.

Traffic fatalities in Georgia rose by 34 percent from 2014 to 2016, when 1,561 people died. Experts say distracted driving played a big role in the surge – drivers’ eyes were glued to their cell phones instead of the road.

According to GDOT, fatalities declined slightly to 1,549 in 2017. And they fell again to 1,444 last year, the preliminary numbers show.

Law enforcement agencies across the state took different approaches to enforcement. Some, like the State Patrol, emphasized warnings for several months after the law took effect. Others wrote tickets right from the start.

State Patrol Sgt. Logan Gass, who works out of Marietta, said troopers stepped up enforcement during the holidays, writing more than 2,000 tickets in December alone.

Gass said the new law makes it easier to cite motorists for dangerous behavior. Under the old law, adults were prohibited from texting while driving, but could make phone calls. Police said the law was difficult to enforce because it was hard to tell when someone holding a phone was texting or talking.

Now, anyone with a phone in hand while driving is breaking the law, unless it’s an emergency situation (you can find more details about what is and is not permitted under the law here.)

Though plenty of people are violating the new law, Gass said he’s noticed a change in driver behavior. Before, motorists with phones in their hands seldom bothered to hide it from police.

“Now, if you find somebody with a cell phone in their hands, they’re trying to hide it,” he said. “That tells me they know better.”

The law passed the General Assembly with overwhelming support. But it may be revisited in the upcoming session.

One possible change involves teenage drivers. Under the old law, teens were prohibited from using electronic devices while driving. Under the new one, they can talk and text just like adults, as long as they use hands-free technology.

Safety advocates hope lawmakers will reinstate the ban on teens using electronic devices while driving.

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.