Will Georgia's new hands-free driving law make you safer? [photos]

Will Georgia's new hands-free driving law make you safer? [photos]

June 24th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Sgt. Kevin Denny with the Walker County Sheriff's Office speaks to a motorist after stopping the individual for a seatbelt violation Friday, June 22, 2018 in Walker County, Georgia. To cut down on car crashes and traffic fatalities, police in the Georgia will enforce a new Ҩands-freeӠlaw when the law goes into effect July 1.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

Gallery: Will Georgia's new hands-free driving law make you safer?

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Tennessee

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, Tennessee drivers are required to keep their hands off their phones only when they drive through a school zone.

Traffic Fatalities by Year, Georgia

2012: 1,126

2013: 1,085

2014: 1,080

2015: 1,329

2016*: 1,422

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Center for Statistics and Analysis

*2016 figures are not final

Traffic Fatalities by Year, Tennessee

2012: 929

2013: 911

2014: 893

2015: 888

2016*: 966

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Center for Statistics and Analysis

*2016 figures are not final

More Info

Change in Traffic Fatalities, First Year With Hands-Free Law: 4 percent decrease*

Nationwide Change in Traffic Fatalities Those Years: 1 percent decrease

*Average for 14 states with hands-free driving laws

States with hands-free driving laws

California

Connecticut

Delaware

Georgia*

Hawaii

Illinois

Maryland

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

Oregon

Rhode Island**

Vermont

Washington

West Virginia

*Begins July 1

**Began June 1

When they lift their eyes from their phones, Georgia drivers may see blue lights in the mirrors.

To cut down on car crashes and traffic fatalities, police in the state will enforce a "hands-free" law when it goes into effect July 1. The gist of the legislation is simple: When officers catch drivers holding their phones behind the wheel, they're writing a ticket.

"We just hope that people understand this is about saving lives, including their own," said Robert Hydrick, communications director for the Georgia Governor's Office of Highway Safety. "This is going to be a big change."

Texting and driving (or checking emails and driving, or reading Twitter and driving) is dangerous. You take your eyes off the road for a couple of seconds. You keep moving — fast — and things change in front of you. Another driver breaks or switches lanes. You miss it. Crashes happen.

But scientifically measuring this phenomenon is difficult. Law enforcement officials believe drivers underreport how often they use their phones, especially after a crash.

Likewise, measuring the impact of a hands-free law like Georgia's is difficult. You can't say how often drivers used their phones before, so how can you say how much less they're using them now?

Police can look at broader driving statistics, such as the number of crashes and deaths in a given year. But even then, it's hard to isolate the exact reasons for a change. There are dozens of factors with driver safety, from sobriety to seat belt use.

"As far as correlating [phone use] with injuries and fatalities, it's almost impossible," said Bob Tipton, director of the West Virginia Governor's Office of Highway Safety, where a hands-free law went into effect in 2012.

Still, Tipton said, the law feels like it's had a positive impact. Driving safety officials in other states agreed.

Neighboring states Tennessee and Alabama have laws on the books specifically against texting while driving, but they do not address other uses of mobile devices, apart from Tennessee's ban on operating handheld devices while driving in a school zone.

What's new

In Georgia, the Legislature passed a law that banned texting and driving in 2010. It has not been effective.

Police officers complain they can rarely even enforce the law. They may see drivers tap away on a phone at a red light, but the officers can't see what was actually on the screen.

"You had to witness or have some evidence that texting was taking place," said Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson, the immediate past president of the Georgia Sheriff's Association. "That, a lot of times, was very difficult. If you pulled up to the side of the car, you didn't know if they were looking at a phone number or dialing a phone or texting."

The solution? This new law bans drivers from holding their phones at all. There is an exception for drivers who need to call 911. They can also use the GPS on their phones, so long as they keep the device on a seat, on the car's console or in a holder, like a clip mounted to the dashboard.

Offenders face fines of $50, $100 and $150, depending on how many times they have been caught.

To prepare people for the change, Wilson has made the rounds in the North Georgia social circuit. The Rotary club. The Lion's Club. The local tea party. He has also posted on the sheriff's office Facebook page and passed out educational pamphlets.

Statewide, the Governor's Office of Highway Safety has released TV and Facebook ads about the issue. Wilson said his office will issue warnings for the first month before actually fining people. (A Georgia State Patrol spokesperson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the department will "emphasize warnings" through September.)

To prepare for the change, Wilson suggested drivers buy a Bluetooth speaker or earbuds with a microphone attached to the cord, which often come with a cellphone purchase. Newer cars often have Bluetooth capability, as well.

Impact

The new law comes at a time when the state's annual driving fatalities are at a 10-year high. In 2016, the most recent year available, 1,422 people died in Georgia from traffic fatalities. That is a 32 percent increase since 2014. It is also the most deaths for car crashes in the state since 2007.

Georgia officials hope for a decrease. Of the 15 other states with hands-free driving laws, nine saw a drop in traffic fatalities in the first year. (A tenth state, Washington, just enacted the law in July 2017.)

But a deeper look at the numbers shows the hands-free law's impact is difficult to measure. At the same time that those other states saw decreases in traffic fatalities, so did the nation as a whole. (The states with the law saw a bigger decrease of about 4 percent, compared to a 1 percent drop across the country.)

And of the nine states that saw a drop in fatalities the first year, deadly crashes rose again in the years that followed, rising above the figures from before the law was enacted.

For example, according to the Department of Transportation, fatalities dropped in Delaware from 101 in 2009 to 92 in 2010, when the law began. Deaths rose slightly in 2011, to 94. Then they rose more in 2012, to 108. After a drop in 2013, they rose back to 109 in 2014 and 127 in 2015.

And from 2009-17, according to the Delaware Office of Highway Safety, total crashes in the state rose 53 percent. Mitch Topal, a spokesman for the office, said he wasn't sure why those figures would have increased after the hands-free bill passed, calling the revelation "a strange phenomenon."

In West Virginia, where the 2012 law has led to an 11 percent decrease in crashes and a 22 percent drop in traffic fatalities, Tipton was hesitant to fully attribute the change to the new legislation. He said there are simply too many factors in driving to know for sure.

In Oregon, 331 people died in car crashes in 2009, the year before its law took effect. Deaths remained below that figure through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But in 2015, fatalities jumped up to 411.

Shelley Snow, a public affairs officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation, believes the 2010 legislation wasn't strong enough. She said it included a carve-out that allowed drivers to use their phones if they were conducting business.

"These tickets would go to court, and there wasn't enough meat in there to make anything stick," she said. "It would come down to whether or not somebody was using it during work. It was too nebulous a concept."

The legislature scrapped the measure with a new law that began Oct. 1. Now only emergency workers can use their phones while they drive. First-time offenders now are fined $1,000, Snow said. Second-time offenders are fined $1,500. Third-time offenders face the same fine — but also a jail sentence of up to six months.

"This is serious," Snow said. "You could kill somebody just because you wanted to answer a phone call or reply to a text? It's so not worth it."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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