By Kevin PatrickWhile cell phones and other mobile devices are certainly useful to us, they are also causing more automobile and trucking accidents in Georgia. The statistics from the National Safety County show that traffic fatalities in Georgia have risen by one-third from 2014 through 2016, which is the fifth-highest increase in our country and more than twice the national average. The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety has even likened distracted driving to drunk driving because of the erratic driving behavior exhibited by the former type of drivers. For example, texting and driving may reduce reaction time by upwards of thirty-seven percent. The vast majority of the distracted driving automobile accidents have been rear-end collisions and have involved drivers under the age of twenty-five in Georgia.
As trial lawyers, we have likely been called upon by our clients and their families to help in these tragic situations and explain the current state of the law in Georgia. This article will accordingly focus on four aspects of the Hands-Free Georgia Act: (1) The legislative history; (2) What is permissible; (3) What is prohibited; and (4) What are the penalties for a violation?
Georgia along with fourteen other states have passed legislation aimed at preventing and discouraging distracted drivers given this dangerous and growing trend on the highways. A number of representatives sponsored HB 673, which is commonly referred to as “Hands-Free Georgia Act,” during the 2018 regular session. The governor signed this bill into law on May 2nd. HB 673 went into effect on July 1st and technically amended Title 40 of the Official Code of Georgia, which allows/prohibits the following conduct:
This act allows:
- You to use earpieces, headphones, as well as Apple watches to talk;
- Texting and talking so long as you are using hands-free technology;
- You to use one button to activate voice recognition technology, such as Siri or Google;
- A GPS or mapping application in the background; however, you are not permitted to be actively imputing information; and,
- Interestingly, CB radios are allowed along with commercial two-way radios.
There are, however, a number of prohibited actions, such as:
- Holding or support a phone or other device with any partof the body;
- Writing, sending, and/or reading a text message, Facebook message, IM, e-mail, or similar type of message;
- Watching a video or movie other than a GPS or mapping application; and,
- Recording or broadcasting live video footage.
Also, HB 673 prohibits you from reaching for your phone if you are not in a safe driving position or will have to take off your seatbelt to get to it.
There are some exceptions to the prohibited conduct in the Hands-Free Georgia Act, which are rooted in public safety considerations. You are allowed to use a phone to report a traffic accident, medical emergency, fire, crime, and dangerous condition on the road. In addition to these exceptions, you can use your hands if you are stationary in a lawful parking space; however, it does not apply when your vehicle is stopped at a red light or a stop sign.
The legislature has imposed a schedule for violations of this act, which are all misdemeanors. The first offense carries a fine up to $50 and one point on your license. A second offense within a two-year period will carry a fine up to $100 and two points your license. If there is a third offense within two-year period, there is a fine up to $150 and three points on your license. Some counties are vesting their police officers with a fair amount of discretion during the early phases of this law by allowing them to issue only verbal warnings for violations of this act. Interestingly, there is a provision that first offender will be able to get the fine waived and points on the licenses removed if that person purchases and shows proof of an acceptable hands-free device.
The public policy behind the Hands-Free Georgia Act is to create a balanced and pragmatic approach to the use of cell phones while you are driving your vehicle. Although there are still some unanswered questions (and ones that may have to be litigated by trial lawyers), such as whether a person can input an address into a GPS application while driving a vehicle, initial reports indicate that traffic fatalities are down by approximately ten percent this year. What is more, the publicity associated with this law has also likely contributed to safer road in Georgia. The ultimate goal of this act is protecting you and other drivers on the roads in Georgia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kevin Patrick is an experienced trial attorney. He devotes his practice to representing individuals and families throughout the state with an emphasis in wrongful death and other serious injuries, as well as trucking and automobile accidents. Kevin also has a specialty in daycare negligence cases. He is a member of the State Bar of Georgia, the District of Columbia Bar, and is one of a few attorneys admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. Kevin is a 2018 graduate of the GTLA LEAD Program and currently serves on the Verdict Editorial Board.