Under House Bill 23, passed this spring by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, drivers with an instruction permit or class D license who are under 18 years of age are not allowed to operate a vehicle while using a cell phone or similar devices that initiate or receive wireless communications with others. Violators can be penalized 1 point on their license and earn a $150 fine, which is doubled if the driver is involved in a crash at the time of the violation.
Drivers 18 or older or who hold a class C license can legally use a cell phone while driving, but may not use it or other devices to write, send or read text-based communications, including text messages, e-mail or other Internet data while operating their vehicle under laws created under Senate Bill 360, also passed and signed this year. Those caught violating the law can earn a 1 point penalty on their license and a $150 fine.
Both laws provide some exceptions. Any driver reporting a traffic accident, road hazard, medical emergency, crime or the possible perpetration of a crime, for instance, will not be deemed to be in violation of the laws. Drivers also may text or use their phones with no legal repercussions if their vehicle is legally parked.
The texting ban on adult drivers does not apply to public utility employees or contractors responding to public utility emergencies, nor emergency officials performing their job duties.
Local law enforcement officials said they will be watching drivers who violate either law. Cpl. Andrew Gideon of the Georgia State Patrol said troopers likely will issue warnings to drivers who run afoul of the two laws during their first month of the rules being active. He added that the illegal cell phone use alone is enough for law enforcement to pull over a driver.
"It's a primary law, not a secondary law, which means that's an offense in and of itself," Gideon said. "We don't have to say, 'Well, the person was speeding or not wearing their seatbelt' -- we can stop them for texting."
State troopers will not be the only ones keeping their eyes on those who may not have both eyes on the road.
"We'll enforce it as we see it, as a public safety concern, and that will be interpreted by the officer just like everything else," said Cartersville Police Chief Tommy Culpepper. "There are times when a citation is necessary to educate, and there are times when a warning is probably sufficient to educate. It has a lot to do with what has occurred after we've become aware of the fact that they were violating this law, if there's damage due to an accident or an injury -- that tends to heighten the awareness of anything.
"We're not going to be setting up roadblocks checking for people texting and that sort of thing," Culpepper added. "I would suggest people obey the law, whether they agree with it or not. It's a law that needs addressing, and I agree with it, but we're not going to go out and have a particular, special emphasis to write texting tickets."
In addition to putting an onus on law enforcement to watch for and cite those using cell phones while driving, officials said the laws should lead to officers noting if cell phone-related distractions led to crashes.
"When we get to an accident scene, we try to determine what the causes were of the accident, because there's really no 'accident' -- something has occurred. There's some event that occurred to create that crash, and it's our job to determine what caused it and address that issue," Culpepper said. "It's going to be difficult to determine that because it relies of the honesty of the driver, and nobody likes to get caught, it's human nature, but we'll do what we can.
"Driving requires you to do several things at one time -- adding the phone call in there is just increasing the chance for disaster to occur, and that's something we can certainly control," he added. "I'd just encourage people to think about how often they talk when they're driving, and do they really need to."
Noting cell phone use as a contributing factor in crashes, Gideon added, could lead to better information on the true distracting effect of phones on drivers.
"Part of this is that now it's part of the law, when we investigate a crash, that's supposed to be listed on the report to where they can start calculating that more, to start getting better statistics on that. Once that's noted and that data starts being collected, we'll be able to tell more precisely the percentage of this involved in [crashes]," Gideon said.
Holiday traffic period begins tonight
Troopers and other law enforcement officers could collect crash data relating to cell phone use and other hazardous factors as state safety officials begin their focus on the July Fourth weekend. The 78-hour holiday period begins today at 6 p.m. and runs through midnight Sunday.
Traffic estimates from the Georgia Department of Transportation's Crash Reporting Unit and the Georgia State Patrol are for 2,072 traffic crashes, 999 injuries and 18 traffic deaths over the weekend.
Last year, there were 15 traffic deaths recorded during the holiday weekend. One of the fatal crashes was alcohol-related and eight of the fatal crash victims were not wearing a seat belt. Three of the people killed were motorcyclists.
In a news release, Col. Bill Hitchens, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, said troopers and officers with the Department's Motor Carrier Compliance Division will be patrolling during the holiday weekend with a goal of keeping the holiday traffic count as low as possible.
"Enforcement personnel will be concentrating their efforts to locate impaired drivers on our roads as well as speeders and motorists who fail to buckle up," Hitchens said. "Our troopers and MCCD officers will be concentrating on the most common violations identified as contributing factors in fatal traffic crashes.
"Anytime a holiday period falls on a weekend, there is an increased chance of encountering an alcohol impaired driver as you travel," Hitchens added. "Minimize distractions in your vehicle and be alert should you be forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision."
Troopers and MCCD officers also are participating through the weekend in Operation Zero Tolerance, the nationwide mobilization against impaired driving. Enforcement personnel will be conducting safety checks and concentrated patrols across the state aimed at intercepting impaired drivers before a traffic crash can occur.
The July Fourth holiday weekend is also an Operation C.A.R.E. weekend. Operation C.A.R.E., or Combined Accident Reduction Effort, encourages safe driving through high visibility enforcement of traffic laws and public education efforts. The program among state highway patrols and state police agencies is now in its 33rd year and is sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The highest number of July Fourth holiday traffic fatalities occurred in 1972 when 34 people were killed, and the lowest occurred in 1962 and 1984 when two people were killed.