Marietta police disguised as utility workers observed motorists violating the Hands-Free Georgia Act earlier this month. Safety advocates say it will take a combination of enforcement and education to pry cellphones from the hands of drivers. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Georgia’s distracted driving law turns 1: Has anything changed?

Traffic citations are up. Fatal accidents are down. Auto insurance collision claims are declining.

But plenty of motorists are still fiddling with their phones as Georgia’s distracted driving law celebrates its first birthday.

The law — which took effect last July — prohibits motorists from handling their cellphones while driving. Early evidence suggests it has stemmed some of the distraction that safety advocates say led to a spike in recent years in deadly traffic accidents in Georgia and across the nation.

But police and traffic safety advocates say it’s too soon to declare the Hands-Free Georgia Act a success. They say it may be years before a clear picture of the law’s impact emerges. And it will take a sustained campaign of education and enforcement to pry our phones from our hands while we’re driving.

“It’s a habit that people have a real hard time breaking,” said Sgt. 1st Class Stephanie Stallings of the Georgia State Patrol. “We’re going to continue to do our part. It may be citations. It may be warnings. We’re going to do what we have to do to change behavior.”

Deadly distraction

Distracted driving is nothing new — people have been eating hamburgers and fiddling with the radio behind the wheel for decades. But safety experts say the problem became acute with the rise of cellphones and — later — smartphones. With their near-constant stream of pings and alerts, they’re designed to seize our attention and not let go.

“What we’re seeing is the advancement of devices that incorporate more technology and features that distract us that much more,” said Bob Dallas, a traffic safety advocate and former director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

The results have been devastating. After years of decline, traffic fatalities in Georgia rose by a third from 2014 to 2016. Similar patterns developed nationwide.

Georgia’s first response to the problem — in 2010 — was to prohibit adults from texting while driving and to ban drivers under 18 from using wireless devices at all. But police said the laws were hard to enforce. They often couldn’t tell whether drivers were 17 or 18, or whether an adult was texting or dialing a phone, which was permitted under the law.

Last year, the General Assembly sought to make enforcement easier, approving the Hands-Free Georgia Act. The law prohibited everyone — teens and adults alike — from handling their phones while driving (you can read more details about what’s allowed and what’s not here).

A first offense will cost you $50 and one point on your driver’s license — drivers with 15 points in a 24-month period lose their license. A second offense costs $100 and two points, and a third costs $150 and three points.

After the law took effect last summer, some agencies — such as the Georgia State Patrol — initially emphasized warning tickets. But enforcement picked up during the holidays and continues, new statistics show.

The State Patrol issued 22,327 distracted driving citations from July 1 through May 31 — far outpacing the number of similar citations before the law took effect.

Local police also are cracking down. Dunwoody police have issued 656 distracted driving citations since last JulyCobb County police have issued 813. Atlanta police have issued a whopping 17,043.

And still, many drivers won’t put down their phones.

Sgt. Wayne Delk, a Cobb County police spokesman, said drivers were conscientious about abiding by the law in the first few months after it went into effect. However, drivers have now “fallen back into those old habits.” He said he’s unsure whether it’s because people don’t think it’s a big deal or if they are used to using their phones while driving.

“Even when you’re not moving you’re in control of that vehicle,” he said. “You need to be able to move when you can and not move when you’re not supposed to.”

Marietta police spokesman Chuck McPhilamy said drivers “have become accustomed since the late 1980s to the idea of cellphone, and it’s changed the perception of the way we view day-to-day life.”

In the pre-cellphone era, drivers would pull up to red lights and the only distraction they had was the radio. Now they can pull out their phones and watch YouTube videos or scroll their Facebook news feed for entertainment.

“We now pull up to a red light and it almost seems painful to sit at that red light,” he said.

Some motorists have adopted hands-free technology since the law took effect.

Jason Jerge of Roswell uses Bluetooth technology behind the wheel so he doesn’t have to touch his phone. He also uses an app that blocks notifications while he’s driving. He thinks many drivers haven taken similar steps.

“I do see an improvement,” Jerge said.

Others don’t think the law has made much difference.

“The law is rarely enforced,” said Robert Allen of Cartersville. “People don’t even try to hide the fact that they are using their phone while driving.”

Early success

Robert Hartwig, a professor at the University of South Carolina, tracks traffic data across the country. He believes the Hands-Free Georgia Act has made a difference.

Georgia traffic fatalities fell 2.2% to 1,515 last year. Auto insurance collision and property damage claims — Hartwig tracks them quarterly using a rolling average — also are falling.

Some of those gains predate the law. But Hartwig believes the months of debate and publicity that led up to its passage got the public’s attention and contributed to the decline.

At some point, gains in traffic fatalities and other measures of safety are likely to level off, he said.

“You don’t get infinite improvement as a result of a change in the law,” Hartwig said. “But it’s very welcome.”

Dallas, the safety advocate, said it will take a combination of public education and law enforcement to make a sustained change in driver behavior. He said motorists need a clear message: “You’re going to get caught and you’re going to get cited.”

That’s the kind of message police in Marietta sent earlier this month.

Marietta and Cobb police teamed up with the Georgia State Patrol on June 19 for a traffic enforcement detail on Cobb Parkway and Roswell Road. Several officers disguised as utility workers observed motorists breaking the law. Officers doled out 170 citations.

In the long run, safety advocates hope the General Assembly will make the law tougher. Dallas would start by raising the fine for a first offense from $50 to $100. He’d also like to see the prohibition on teen drivers using electronic devices restored (an effort to do that went nowhere in the General Assembly this year).

In the meantime, Dallas said high-profile enforcement efforts such as the one in Marietta can make a difference.

Police seem ready to oblige.

Lt. Jeff Childers, an evening watch commander with Atlanta police, said departments across the metro area are enforcing the law because they have seen that “distracted driving can be very dangerous.”

“This is nothing more important than trying to help people get home and be with their families,” he said.

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.

X