The state’s legislature passed House Bill 673 on March 30 and Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign the bill into law Wednesday, May 2. The bill, which will officially be known as the Hands-Free Georgia Act, prohibits the possession of any wireless device while driving.
“The reason why this law is needed in Georgia is because there have been significant increases in car crashes, fatalities and bodily injuries in recent years,” said Jenny Harty, an advocate for highway safety in Georgia. “The vast majority of those have been an increase in rear-end crashes, single-car crashes and crashes of drivers between 15 to 25 years old.”
In 2017, the Georgia Department of Transportation reported 1,550 fatalities on the state’s roadways.
In 15 states, similar laws to HB 673 have been enacted. Harty said traffic fatalities decreased by 16 percent for each of these states in the two years after hands-free driving laws were passed.
“Potentially, if that was to hold true for Georgia, that would equate it to 300 potential lives that are saved,” Harty said. “That would be almost a high school class of students whose lives would be saved.”
Once HB 673 takes effect on July 1, drivers cannot physically hold or support wireless telecommunications devices with any part of the body while driving. The bill also does not allow drivers to send messages without using a hands-free mechanism.
“We do have a lot of capabilities with newer cars where people can hook up their phones to their cars so they don’t have to pick up their phones,” said Alesa Liles, a criminal justice professor at GC. “If we’re able to do that, we should be using those services.”
Despite Georgia already having legislation that prohibits texting and driving, Harty said HB 673 gives officers a piece of legislation that is easier to enforce on the road.
“Our current texting and driving law is not enforceable because the law enforcement cannot tell the difference between if a driver is texting or dialing a phone number,” Harty explained.
GC police chief Don Challis said his officers haven’t issued any tickets for texting and driving, and the new bill would not change the way that GC’s officers will police roads around campus.
“I understand what the intent is, and I think we would act consistently with that intent, which is to reduce injuries,” Challis said. “I don’t think we’re going to be sitting and waiting for somebody to drive by with their phone in their hand, but if it’s causing an issue, then we may stop somebody for that.”
Though some students have voiced frustration with HB 673 because of its restrictions, others like senior John Toney, a history major, support it.
“Texting or sending an email while driving is definitely more distracting than just looking down to change a song,” Toney said. “But because of the nature of this issue, [legislators] have to take a blanket approach.”
Toney also added that the bill could bring unintended effects on drivers who use phones while driving.
“I think some people will be trying get creative to text and drive,” Toney said. “It could definitely be a double-edge sword, and in that case, I would rather somebody have their phone up instead of down trying to hide it.”
The legislation also prohibits drivers from watching movies or videos, and it outlaws recording or broadcasting video on wireless devices.
“Nowadays I’ve seen some cases where drivers are Snapchatting or filming a video while driving, which is a little outrageous,” Liles said. “But oftentimes those are rarer cases and not things that everybody is doing all the time.”
For those caught breaking this law, violators will face a maximum fine of $50 for their first offense. For a second offense in a 24-month period, offenders will face a $100 fine. And for three or more violations in 24 months, the fine will increase to $150.
Despite getting tougher on distracted driving, legislators also included a section in the bill that allows for some mobile device use in special situations.
Drivers are permitted to use cell phones in potentially hazardous situations, and they can look at screens that provide navigation services. Emergency personnel, like police officers and firefighters, are also permitted to use wireless communication devices while driving if they are performing official duties.