1,514 people died in Georgia automobile crashes in 2018, 35 less than in 2017. And the number is trending toward a significant decrease for 2019; that Hands-Free Georgia Act was in effect only for the second half of 2018.
Constant media coverage (including five straight weeks of Gridlock Guy columns) and messaging from state and local governments helped positively influence driver behavior last summer. As the law went into effect, many seemed to genuinely at least try to behave legally behind the wheel. Texting and driving already was illegal, but the new mandate for drivers to stop holding phones or even touching their mobile devices in most cases makes enforcing the original texting law much easier. Without the threat of enforcement, any distracted driving law is toothless.
Georgia drivers seemed to make a decent effort at following the new legal directives in 2018. With the issue very much top of mind, motorists seemed to, at the very least, less ostensibly text and drive. Some officers even told me different ways that drivers would conceal their distracted driving: the low hold, the quick head bob, the hands-up phone drop. And anecdotally, I saw significantly fewer people holding their devices and driving.
But old habits reared their ugly heads as the weeks and months passed. From the WSB Skycopter, we noticed more cars weaving or staying stopped in rush-hour traffic when the lane started moving. From behind the wheel, I saw more and more people holding their phones openly at stop lights. And once those vehicles were in motion, many continued their illegal digital interactions, putting themselves and others at far greater risks.
I’m not making these observations from a glass tower, though the WSB Skycopter isn’t a bad comparison. I’ve noticed some of the same behavior in myself. This topic was hot for a few weeks and I went out of my way to buy Bluetooth adapters for my vehicles and mounted phone holsters. I still use those things. But when that phone pings with a text and the voice technology is being finicky, I must admit that leaving messages unread and unanswered is tough.
Enforcement of the law is difficult, as citizens very simply far outnumber officers. But Marietta PD, Cobb PD, and the Georgia State Patrol took steps recently to nab violators and send a message to the public about distracted driving.
“People assume that if they are not getting pulled over for this law that it’s still OK to slip back into that habit of using their phone while they are driving,” Marietta PD spokesperson Chuck McPhilamy said. “We’re asking the public to realize that the law is in effect for a reason. It’s there to protect you from an accident as well as save lives.”
Three Marietta officers dressed as construction workers at the intersection of Cobb Parkway and Roswell Road last week. They eyed vehicles for violations of both the hands-free laws and seatbelt requirements and then radioed their observations to nearby officers. Those officers then pulled over the offending vehicles. GSP wrote 29 tickets, while Cobb and Marietta police officers issued 141. These are astonishing amounts, considering the operation lasted just from 9:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Wednesday.
Public reaction seemed overall to be positive. Certainly the people getting tickets didn’t feel as great. Some people commented on social media about this being over-enforcement or being a ploy for revenue. These were minority dissenting opinions.
The fine for the first offense is only $50, so last week’s haul wasn’t exactly a mighty bounty for the city, county, or the state. The fines in the law were made low for that reason: to curb the concerns about revenue ploys.
Police cannot run these mini stings all the time, but this case in Cobb County serves as a good reminder of what the law is and what violating it can mean. Don’t hold your phones behind the wheel for any reason. Only touch them to make calls or adjust GPS programs. Only read and answer texts with voice commands or through in-dash systems. Do not use social media or make or watch videos. And know that while most people will not get caught, police aren’t letting Hands-Free Georgia Act violations slide. Lives are on the line.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.