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Georgia state Reps, Steve Tarvin and Dewayne Hill sit alongside state Sen. Jeff Mullis during a Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce luncheon April 12. The lawmakers provided updates on bills approved during Georgia's 2018 legislative session, including one that places stricter restrictions on distracted driving.

As Catoosa County coroner, Vanita Hullander has seen severe consequences from texting and driving.

Over the last 10 years, she's seen about 10 lives come to an end because of distracted driving, a threat she believes is second only to the opioid crisis.

"It's concerning because we have so much traffic on the road now," Hullander said. "We're always under construction on the [road]. It has never stopped. With all of those hazards and the distracted driving coming into play, it's a recipe for disaster."

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Georgia state Reps, Steve Tarvin and Dewayne Hill sit alongside state Sen. Jeff Mullis during a Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce luncheon April 12. The lawmakers provided updates on bills approved during Georgia's 2018 legislative session, including one that places stricter restrictions on distracted driving.

That's why she's hoping one of the state's latest pieces of preventive legislation will bring an end to the "stupid, selfish act."

Georgia lawmakers have approved a bill that will require all drivers to use hands-free cellphone technology while on the road. That could include anything from Bluetooth headsets to smartwatches.

Georgia law currently prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from using mobile devices for any reason while behind the wheel. It also prohibits adults from texting while driving. Still, law enforcement officials say it's not enough.

Under the current restrictions, adults can still dial in phone numbers while on the road, and officers must prove they were texting in order to take punitive measures.

"We've got kids taking selfie-movies in the front seat of kids in the backseat," state Rep. Steve Tarvin told attendees during a legislative update session hosted by the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce April 12. He said the hands-free bill would be one of the most impactful measures from this year's legislative session for residents. "This is not about the privacy of your car. This is about innocent life being taken."

If signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, the hands-free bill will restrict all drivers from holding mobile devices while behind the wheel starting July 1, with exceptions made for those reporting traffic accidents, medical emergencies or crimes.

The bill will also prohibit all drivers from watching or recording video on their smartphones, though the use of GPS devices and navigation apps will still be permitted.

Under the new law, motorists would be fined $50 for their first offense, $100 for their second and $150 for their third.

Georgia state Sen. Jeff Mullis said he was moved by the amount of messages he received from children asking him to support the bill throughout the process. One group of siblings, he recalled, asked him to push for the tighter restrictions because their oldest brother would have been 9 years old had he not been struck by a distracted driver four years prior.

"It was just endless messages from people who experience the same thing," Mullis said.

In 2017 alone, 1,549 people were killed in automobile accidents across the state — up 32 percent since 2014, the Georgia Department of Transportation reported. Of those deaths, 70 percent were caused by unsafe driving behaviors such as speeding, drinking or texting.

Hullander said she's afraid the hands-free bill's restrictions won't be enough to permanently reduce the number of victims she'll see at the coroner's office in the coming years.

"As with anything, my concern is that in the beginning people will be a little more cautious about using their phones, but then they're going to start to devise ways to sneak to use their phones," she said.

Hullander added that she would like to see some sort of system that holds parents accountable for their texting teens, such as requiring those parents to pay a fine if their child is caught texting and driving.

Email Myron Madden at mmadden@timesfreepress.com.

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