What to Know About Georgia’s New Distracted Driving Law
Joel Williams Law, LLC
Distracted driving as a cause of car wrecks has garnered increased attention from the media, scholars, and lawmakers over the past few years. The CDC warns that distracted driving is a major cause of accidents, and statistics from the Georgia Department of Transportation show that fatal highway accidents are on the rise as a result of these behaviors. According to the New York Times, talking on the phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving with a blood alcohol level at the legal limit, text-messaging drivers are eight times more likely to be in an accident than other drivers, and overall, drivers distracted in some way are four times more likely to be in an accident. The NYT put together an excellent video that highlights the unfortunate reality that even though drivers understand the risk of these activities, they continue to take part in them while they drive.
Georgia passed an anti-texting law in 2010, which made it illegal to “write, send, or read any text based communication, including but not limited to a text message, instant message, e-mail, or Internet data” while operating a motor vehicle on a public Georgia roadway. Now, Georgia has enacted a new law that places additional restrictions on drivers. In February 2018, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill, by a wide margin, which prohibits certain activities associated with distracted driving. In a 55-0 vote, the Georgia Senate passed a version of the law on March 27th, and the Georgia General Assembly approved that same version of the law on March 29th, 2018. The bill was sent to Governor Nathan Deal on April 6th, 2018, and he signed it into law on May 2, 2018. The full text of the law can be found here.
In addition to prohibiting sending or reading a written communication, the new law makes holding a cell phone while driving, as well as watching or taking a video recording while driving a car illegal.
Operators of commercial motor vehicles should be aware that the law places additional restrictions of their activities. For example, the law also makes it illegal for a commercial motor vehicle operator to reach for something if doing so requires no longer being seated in the proper driving position or properly restrained by a safety belt. Commercial motor vehicle drivers are also prohibited from using more than a single button on a wireless telecommunications device to initiate or terminate a voice communication.
There are several actions that lawmakers considered including in the new restrictions, but ultimately decided against doing so. Under the new law, drivers will still be permitted to:
- Talk or text on a cell phone using hands-free technology;
- Wear a smart watch;
- Use a GPS system or mapping app; and
- Use a radio to communicate.
Drivers are exempt from the law if they are experiencing an emergency, or reporting an emergency. The law permits drivers to use a cell phone while driving to report an accident, medical emergency, fire, crime or hazardous road condition to authorities. The prohibition on hand held cell phone use does not apply to anyone that is legally parked.
Police officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, ambulance drivers, other first responders, and utility employees or contractors responding to a utility emergency are also exempt from the law.
The fine for violating this law is relatively low. A first-time violator may receive a fine of up to $50; a second time violator a fine of up to $100; and for third or subsequent violations a fine of up to $150 is possible.
However, violating this law will also harm a person’s driving record. A first violation will add one point to a person’s driver’s license; a second violation two points; and a third or subsequent violation three points.
If a driver is facing his or her first charge for holding a cell phone while driving, the driver may appear in court and produce a device or proof of purchase of a device that will allow the driver to comply with the hands free law. As long as the driver affirms that they have never previously utilized this privilege, the trial court is required to find the driver not guilty of the charge.
In addition to prohibiting the use of handheld cellular communication while driving, Georgia prohibits drivers from engaging in any action which distracts the driver from the safe operation of a motor vehicle. Therefore, drivers should avoid engaging in any of the following dangerous activities:
- Texting. This is probably the most common bad habit in Georgia and throughout the country. Texting while driving is extremely dangerous. Some research shows that texting and driving is “way worse” than drinking and driving. Texting and driving should always be avoided for safety reasons.
- Using apps or other phone functions. Equally dangerous is using your phone to access apps, music, or any other functions. For instance, one study suggested that the popularity of games such as Pokémon Go was causing more accidents on the road because game-obsessed drivers sometimes try to play as they drive. Like texting, using your smartphone while drivingshould always be avoided.
- Talking on the phone. Even hands-free cell phone conversations are risky. Therefore, although hands-free calling is a safer way to communicate than texting, you should be aware that it still presents a risk on the road.
- Eating and drinking. Some people eat and drink when they drive. In fact, at one time or another most people have probably tried to grab a bite or sip on a soda while behind the wheel. While there are some circumstances where this might be safe, you should never eat or drink anything that takes both hands, is messy, or can be easily spilled.
- Any other multitasking. There are countless other ways a person could be distracted trying to multitask as they drive. Anytime you are taking attention away from your driving to do something else, it can be a problem and a safety hazard.