Hands Free Georgia Act – Tackling Distracted Drivers

By David S. Fried, Fried & Bonder, LLC.

In 2016 Fried & Bonder wrote about AT&T’s program “It Can Wait,” aimed at ending texting and driving.  Cell phones and texting affect the brain in ways similar to gambling or drugs. According to now generally accepted wisdom, we compulsively check our phones because every time we get an update through text, email or social media, we experience an elevation of dopamine, which is a neurochemical in the brain that makes us feel happy.  So, when driving, this dopamine addiction leads to a continuous, even unconscious, resort to the phone in search of that happy feeling.  Too often the result is catastrophic injury and death.  And texting, we know, is only one of many  distractions causing an increase in wrecks and injuries.  Eating, fixing hair and make-up and even talking on the phone all distract drivers’ attentions from the road.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says, “there is growing evidence that talking on a cellphone increases crash risk…”

It’s already illegal to physically text and email while driving in Georgia. Now, thanks to a new law,  it is also tougher to use your phone while driving unless you have hands-free calling.  Bluetooth will help too.

House Bill 673, also known as the Hands-Free Georgia Act, was signed into law on Wednesday, May 2, 2018.  The new legislation generally outlaws drivers from holding a cell phone or other electronic device while driving.  As a result, it makes it much easier for law enforcement to cite Georgia drivers for distracted driving. The bill specifically lays out what drivers in Georgia cannot do while behind the wheel.

Drivers will no longer be able to

  • hold or support a wireless telecommunications device or stand-alone electronic device;
  • write, send, or read any text-based communication, including a text message, instant message, e-mail or internet data while holding your device;
  • watch a video or movie other than watching data related to the navigation of your vehicle; or
  • record or broadcast a video.

First time violators will get slapped with a $50 fine.  Second timers will pay $100 for a violation and there will be a $150 fine for a third and any subsequent violations.

The new law is expected to go into effect July 1.

The bill does allow the use of Bluetooth and hands-free cell phone usage – so speaking or texting using hands-free technology is ok.  Using a GPS is ok too, as is using a smart watch (though I suspect use of the smart watch is similarly limited to hands-free applications).  Using an earpiece on your phone is allowed and drivers are not prohibited from using radios, CB radios, CB radio hybrids, commercial two-way radios, subscription-based emergency communication devices, prescribed medical devices, amateur or ham radios and “in-vehicle security, navigation or remote diagnostics” systems.

There are also special circumstances where you can handle an electronic device while driving: reporting a traffic accident, medical emergency, fire, a crime or delinquent act, or a hazardous road condition. You can also use your hands if you’re lawfully parked.   And police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, ambulance drivers and other first responders are exempt from the hands-free requirement if they are performing official duties, as are utility employees or contractors responding to a utility emergency.

One peculiar aspect of the law is that it allows drivers to physically dial their phones, but makes it illegal for them to hold the phone in any way, including in their laps or the crooks of their necks.  Like a navigation system (the use of which is not prohibited under this law), drivers can punch in numbers for a call while the phone is positioned in some manner (perhaps in the passenger seat?) but not held.  This sounds even more dangerous than some of the prohibited activities.

Until every driver is equipped with a fancy phone and a car that handles Bluetooth or other hands-free voice technology, it appears that some amount of  distracted driving, and resulting injury from distracted drivers, remains inevitable.

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