Stephen Hasner | Car Accidents | May 16, 2019
On May 2, 2018, Gov. Nathan Deal signed the Hands-Free Georgia Act into law. The Act’s sweeping revisions to the Georgia motor vehicle code took effect on July 1, 2018, and made Georgia a leader in confronting the epidemic of distracted driving that continues to plague the nation’s roads. In this blog post, we review the key provisions of the new law and what it means for Georgia drivers and passengers.
The Hands-Free Georgia Act Explained
Until 2018, Georgia had adopted only limited statutory protections against distracted driving. A Georgia law enacted in 2010 banned reading, writing, or sending text messages while driving, and another law banned drivers under 18 from using any wireless device. According to the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, these measures made a measurable dent in the number of distracted drivers involved in fatal accidents, but by no means did they eliminate the problem from Georgia roads.
One of the problems with any law that tries to address the use of new technologies behind the wheel is that it’s difficult for legislatures to keep up with tech-makers’ innovations. By 2018, that’s what had happened to existing laws in Georgia. Drivers today face more potential distractions from technology than ever before. What’s more, since 2010, research such as that cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shed light on the broader problem of distracted driving in all three of its forms: visual, manual, and cognitive. According to the CDC, “[e]ach day in the United States, approximately 9 people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.” Many of these deaths no doubt result from drivers getting distracted by sending texts, but certainly not all of them.
The Hands-Free Georgia Act seeks to address distracted driving as the broad-based problem that it is, rather than as a narrow issue involving only texting-and-driving. Which is not to say texting isn’t a central focus of the law. It is. But, the law also tried to curb all driver distractions, both technological and human.
Prohibited Conduct and Penalties
Here’s how the law tries to tackle distracted driving in all of its forms:
- The law imposes a baseline requirement on all drivers to “exercise due care in operating a motor vehicle on the highways of this state” by barring drivers from engaging in “any actions which shall distract … driver[s] from the safe operation of [a] vehicle.” The important words in the prohibition are any actions. It doesn’t matter what you do as a driver that distracts you. You will be guilty of a violating the law if you do anything behind the wheel that distracts you from safe operation. That includes using a device, eating food, applying makeup… anything.
- The law prohibits holding or physically supporting any wireless or stand alone electronic device, except for headphones, earpieces, or wrist-worn devices used for voice communications. So, wearing a Bluetooth phone in your ear or talking on your Apple Watch is okay, but holding a smartphone with any part of your body (with your hands, tucked under your chin, etc.) is not.
- The law prohibits reading, writing, and sending nearly all forms of text-based communication from a device while driving, “including but not limited to a text message, instant message, e-mail, or Internet data,” except for voice-to-text and using a GPS for navigation (subject, just the same, to the broad limit on engaging in any action that distract from safe driving). The reference to “internet data” in this provision would appear to ban, say, Googling the phone number of a local restaurant.
- The law also prohibits watching, recording, or broadcasting a video or movie on a wireless device or stand alone electronic device, except for “watching data related to the navigation” of the vehicle or recording dash-cam or other continuous recording devices focused outside of the vehicle. Although the words “video” and “movie” could be read narrowly, we expect law enforcement will give them broad interpretation to include participating in a video call while driving.
- Finally, the law imposes limits on physical interactions with a device. Drivers may not press more than one button to initiate or terminate a voice communication, and may not reach for a device if doing so requires leaving a seated driving position and/or taking off a seatbelt. In other words, no turning around in the driver’s seat to reach for a phone in the back seat.
Violating any of the provisions above constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by an escalating series of fines: $50 for the first violation, $100 for the second, and $150 for any more.
Exceptions to the Cell Phone Ban
The Hands-Free Georgia Act excludes four general categories of drivers/activities from the application of its provisions. Three of the four exceptions relate, as you might expect, to public safety. The prohibitions of the Act do not apply to:
- Any driver reporting a traffic accident, emergency, or unsafe driver or road condition posing an immediate and serious traffic or safety hazard
- A utility employee or contractor who is on the job and responding to a utility emergency;
- Any law enforcement officer or first responder during the performance of his or her official duties; and
- Any driver sitting in a lawfully parked vehicle.
Distracted Driving Accident Lawyer in Savannah
The Hands-Free Georgia Act makes clear how seriously the state takes the problem of distracted driving on its roads. By now, all Georgia drivers should know that texting-and-driving is extremely dangerous and illegal. The new law reminds drivers to view other driving distractions the same way. Simply put, when you drive distracted, no matter what the distraction is, you put yourself and everyone else on or near the road at risk of serious injury and death.
If a distracted driver in the Savannah area injures you or takes the life of your loved one, seek legal representation right away. The experienced, compassionate attorneys and staff at Hasner Law help victims of distracted drivers and their families recover the compensation they deserve for their injuries and losses. Call us at our Savannah office today at (912) 234-2334 or visit us online to schedule a free, confidential consultation with a member of our team.