‘Still very tough’ for families hurt by distracted drivers
A year after Georgia passed a law to crack down on distracted driving, motorists are still learning the dos and don’ts but compliance is better, according to area law enforcement.
The Hands-Free Georgia Act went into effect July 1, 2018. It forbids motorists from holding a cellphone while driving or even from having it on their lap.
Motorists can talk on their phone, as long as they have some type of technology or mount where they aren’t holding their phone. Drivers can touch the phone only to answer a call.
Statewide, Georgia State Patrol troopers wrote 24,862 citations related to the hands-free law in the first year. Most of those — 20,060 — were related to holding a cellphone will driving. Other citations may include watching video while driving or texting.
Bibb County Sheriff’s Capt. Brad Wolfe, who supervises traffic enforcement, said deputies wrote 117 citations related to the hand-free law in the first year, along with issuing many more warnings. He said more motorists are aware of the law now but compliance is still an issue.
“We’ve got a ways to go to get to where we want to be,” he said.
Overall, he and other area law enforcement officials said they believe the law has made the roads safer.
Houston County Sheriff’s Cpl. Will Mitchelson said deputies there wrote approximately 350 tickets in the first year of the law, and that’s after writing only warnings in the first month.
“We still have old habits to break,” he said. “We definitely still see a lot of people texting and driving.”
Mitchelson supervises the Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic team, also known as HEAT. He said the number of accidents were about the same in the first year of the law, but he believes it is making the roads safer considering there is more traffic in Houston due to growth.
“It is definitely making an impact,” he said.
Mitchelson said one thing deputies are seeing is that more drivers have their phones on car mounts.
The law definitely prompted people to get devices for hand-free phone use while driving, said T.J. Simmons, manager of Metro by T-Mobile in Macon. She said a flood of people came in for mounts or Bluetooth devices when the law went into effect, although it has slowed down now.
Warner Robins Acting Police Chief John Wagner said officers wrote approximately 140 tickets in the first year.
Law enforcement officials said many people still are not aware that holding a cellphone in their lap while driving is out. Mitchelson said deputies often see people holding a phone in that manner when they pull people over.
Wolfe said just as with a speeding ticket or other violation, it’s a deputy’s discretion as to whether to give a citation or a warning.
Typically, he said, if it seems they have gotten a driver’s attention just by making the stop, they are more likely to issue a warning. But if the driver has an attitude and doesn’t seem to understand the importance of the law, they are more likely to get a ticket.
A ticket is $50 on the first offense and 1 point on a driver’s record.
The General Assembly made law enforcement officers exempt from the law, but Mitchelson said the Houston Sheriff’s Office doesn’t recognize that. Deputies are forbidden by policy from violating the law, and patrol cars have hands free technology anyway, he said.
“You have to practice what you preach,” he said.