July 1st marked the one-year anniversary of the Hands-Free Georgia Act. Lawmakers, led by Rep. John Carson (R-Marietta), added a layer of rules to a previous 2010 distracted driving measure. Most basically, the tougher law is meant to take the phones out of drivers’ hands and crack down on other, more involved features of mobile phone use behind the wheel. With a year now under the controversial measure’s seat belt, I took to Twitter to take peoples’ temperatures on how they obeyed changes.
I posted a poll on my personal Twitter account, asking people to rate how well they followed the new distracted driving rules in the past year. The extremely unscientific results, 187 votes to be exact, might have shown more about human nature than actual reality.
41% or 76 people said “Yes, I’m very cautious.” Anecdotally, I feel like less than 41% of the drivers I see behave within complete compliance of the revised hands-free law. The flaws of human nature may have both bolstered peoples’ opinions of themselves and slighted my own about other people. We are often not very objective judges of things.
Stats compiled by AJC reporters David Wickert and Kristal Dixon show that the law is starting to achieve the desired results, but also plenty of people are getting punished for it. GSP has written nearly twice as many distracted driving tickets in the first half of 2019 than the second half of 2018. They have given about 25,000 total and had a warning grace period up until October 1st after the law went into effect. Atlanta Police say they have written over 17,000 tickets since last year. Just last month, GSP, Cobb and Marietta police joined forces to nab 170 distracted drivers in just over two-and-a-half hours.
These large numbers of tickets may help prove the notions that drivers have about other drivers, that many people violate the law. But it curbs another anecdotal observation, that the law is not nearly enforced enough. Officers seem to be writing more tickets than we thought.
32%, or 60 people, in my informal Twitter poll said that they follow the new rules most of the time. I actually thought this number would lead the results. 16%, or 30 people, said they only check their phones at red lights, and 11%, or 21 people, said, “Nope. No one stops me.” At least those last ones were honest.
While positive results have to plane out at some point, Georgia appears to be gaining benefits from the heftier cellphone laws in the first year. Roadway fatalities are decreasing. Wickert and Dixon’s AJC report also shows that Georgia auto insurance claims have lessened since the implementation of the new law. Other factors could drive these results, such as modern cars being made safer, but the new laws seem to have an effect.
Even law-enforcement officers say that they have noticed people being more lax about distracted-driving laws than when the discussion about the Hands-Free Act was more top of mind in 2018. But officers also are getting better at spotting violators, and the revised rules make nabbing spacey motorists easier.
Despite my advocacy for the rules, I’ve been open about my slipping into old habits. I sometimes check my phone (while in its dashboard holster) at lights. The biggest change for me is that I never hold it and always use my Bluetooth/FM adapters. That all makes my driving safer than how I drove before. But I need to follow the rules better.
Remember that the law sets a low bar and doesn’t outlaw or totally prevent being distracted. Animated conversations with a passenger or eating can distract drivers. Trying to get a hands-free, Bluetooth adapter to work or sending a hands-free text can be distracting in and of themselves. And those are legal. We shouldn’t strive to drive more attentively because the law says so; we should drive alert to preserve our lives and those of our peers.
Respondents to my hands-free Twitter poll seemed to rate themselves higher than how most people behave. That could be because my Twitter followers are more likely to be in-tune with traffic laws or are older and more likely to follow the law. Or this positive result could be very simply that we judge ourselves less harshly than we judge others. More than likely, all these things are a bit true. At least the more reliable stats show that Georgia’s roads are now safer. But there is still a long way to go.
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.