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Fewer cars crashed on Hall County roads in 2019. Authorities think this is why
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Gainesville Police Corporal Erik Ellis patrols traffic on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

Across the board, Hall County saw fewer traffic fatalities, crashes with injuries and total crashes in 2019 compared to 2018.

Looking back on last year, Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said the Georgia Hands-Free Law, the Georgia Move Over Law and safety enforcement around school buses and construction zones have been “hugely impactful” on reducing collisions and fatalities.

Authorities said drivers may be looking at the road, but they may not be focusing on the people and vehicles around them. Some of the major areas of concern have been McEver, Friendship and Thompson Bridge roads as well as construction areas on U.S. 129.

“Whether that distraction is their phone or something else, they’ve moved into a zone of blindness around those things,” she said of drivers. “And we’ve really treated all four of those (areas) in the same way with driver education and rehabilitation as our focus”

In 2019, there were 19 traffic fatalities compared to 27 in 2018, according to statistics provided by Hall County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Todd Casper. There were also 860 fewer crashes between 2019 and 2018, decreasing from 9,153 wrecks to 8,293.

Hall County crash statistics

2018

Total crashes: 9,153

Injury crashes: 1,668

Fatalities: 27

2019 

Total crashes: 8,293

Total injury crashes: 1,541

Fatalities: 19

The Georgia Hands-Free Law took effect July 1, 2018 and prohibits drivers from holding a cellphone. Exceptions were made for voice-to-text capabilities, navigational applications and streaming music, but the user cannot touch the phone while driving.

“We’ve obviously had to do a great deal of education and enforcement piece on top of that, so I think what you’re starting to see are the results between the legislation, that enforcement and that education all come together,” Gainesville Police Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said. “That was kind of what was predicted with that law, in and of itself, is that it would take some time but you would see that decrease.”

The first conviction under the law results in a $50 fine and a point on the driver’s license. The charge can be dropped for first-time offenders who show they have purchased hands-free technology.

While Gainesville Police Lt. Tommy McElroy said he believes the law ultimately has helped reduce distracted driving, that does not mean the drivers of Gainesville are fully onboard with putting the phone away.

“Some days you go out there (when) we’re looking for them and really don’t see that many. Other days, they’ll pull right up beside you and be on the phone,” said McElroy, who leads the specialized services division for the department.

McElroy pulled up next to a man using his cellphone in the past few weeks. The man first looked over and saw McElroy before looking down and seeing the police markings on the car.

“He just kind of smiled. He knew he had been caught,” McElroy said.

The Georgia Department of Transportation reported 1,423 traffic fatalities on Georgia’s roadways in 2019, continuing a downward trend since 2016. If the 2019 number stands, it would be lower than the 2015 death toll of 1,432.

The number Casper considered to be “really amazing” was the drop in fatalities in unincorporated Hall County. These areas saw 26 deaths in 2017, 22 deaths in 2018 and 11 deaths last year.

“With the implementation of the (Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic) unit through the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and a collaborative effort with the Georgia State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies in the county, these fatality numbers have been able to be reduced,” Casper wrote in an email. The state-funded HEAT traffic unit, which includes two Hall officers and one Gainesville officer, first received grant funding in 2017.

McElroy said due to department statistics, officers have focused on crashes and distracted driving on Dawsonville Highway and Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Most of the wrecks are at low speeds, as congested areas tend to lead to more collisions.

“A lot of times we can’t prove it, but it looks like it’s probably somebody being on the phone. And it’s a little misleading, because if they get issued a citation, if they rear end somebody, it’s typically for following too (closely),” McElroy said.

Holbrook said the “biggest help” on the law enforcement side was the hands-free law clarifying for police and the public what the rules are regarding cellphone use in the car.

Woodard also noted that a focus on the older move over statute has been helpful. Georgia law requires that drivers move one lane over “when emergency and utility vehicles are stopped on the side of the highway and operating in an official capacity,” according to the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

If a lane change is impossible or unsafe, the driver must slow down “to a reasonable and proper speed for the existing road and traffic conditions … and be prepared to stop,” according to the law.

Woodard said those that have been ticketed claim they couldn’t move over because of traffic.

“I would say seven times out of 10 when we show them the video, there was no traffic that prevented their moving over. It’s been a real opportunity for education, and those have been the most meaningful safety differences in 2019,” she said.

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