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.

New Georgia law frees teen drivers to use their phones

For years, most Georgia teenagers have been prohibited from using phones and other wireless devices while driving.

That’s about to change, and some safety advocates aren’t happy about it.

Georgia’s new distracted driving law treats teenagers and adults alike – it prohibits them from holding their phones while driving. But they can use their phones for some purposes if they’re using hands-free technology (you can find more details on myAJC.com).

The new law replaces 2010 statutes that treated teens and adults differently. They prohibited anyone 18 and older from texting while driving and banned any driver under 18 from using an electronic device at all.

Natalie Bacho lobbied for the new law. She said it’s an improvement over the old one in many ways. But she still thinks teen drivers should be prohibited from using phones.

Nine-year-old Abby Bacho died in a 2012 crash when a teenage driver talking on a cell phone ran a red light.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Bacho’s daughter Abby died in a 2012 crash when an 18-year-old driver who was talking on the phone ran a red light. Bacho said young people are especially vulnerable to the allure of electronic devices.

“Those kids have never known a time in their life without some form of entertainment in their hands,” she said.

Research supports her concern. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, teens have the highest automobile crash rate of any group in the country. The foundation found some form of distracting behavior was involved in 59 percent of teen crashes it examined from 2007-15.

State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, sponsored the new Georgia law. He said eliminating the distinction between teen and adult drivers will make the distracted driving statute easier to enforce.

That’s because police say it’s hard to tell at first glance whether a driver is 18 and allowed to use a phone or 17 and prohibited from doing so. Eliminating the distinction means anyone with a phone in their hand is violating the new law.

Carson acknowledged allowing teens to use their devices hands-free could be construed as loosening the distracted driving statute. But he said teen drivers were using their phones anyway, and the old law was hard to enforce.

Nonetheless, Carson said he may revisit the issue with new legislation next year.

In the meantime, Bacho urged parents to set a good example for teen drivers by putting down their phones while driving.

“You can’t always be there to know what they’re doing,” she said. “But if you show them how important it is by practicing the law yourself, they will follow that example.”

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