Gainesville police say they are ready to enforce a law meant to cut down on the number of distracted drivers on Georgia’s roads.
Along with a slew of other laws, Georgia’s ban on texting while driving becomes effective today.
And while Hall County and state law enforcement plan to give drivers another month to put their phones down, Gainesville officials will begin enforcing the law today.
How to enforce the law — deciding whether a driver was texting or merely dialing a phone number — will largely be at the officers’ discretion, said Gainesville Sgt. Dale Cash.
Largely, Cash said Gainesville’s traffic officers will make stops based on observations of “people obviously distracted by their texting.” Texting while driving is considered a primary offense, meaning a person can be pulled over for that alone.
“I’ve just told them to use their discretion... use their judgment and discretion whether or not there’s an enforcement issue or if they need to warn the person whether they need to be more mindful,” said Cash, the traffic services unit coordinator for the Gainesville police.
The ban on sending text messages while driving is one of a few laws local public safety officers will add to their list today.
From this point forward, teens in Georgia will no longer be able to use their phones at all while driving. And Gainesville police will begin enforcing a month-old law requiring seatbelt use in trucks, Cash said.
Other law enforcement agencies, such as the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, have already begun enforcing the seatbelt law. The law became effective last month upon Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature.
Like officials with the Georgia State Patrol, deputies with Hall County’s Sheriff’s Office will wait until Aug. 1 to begin enforcing the ban on texting while driving, said Col. Jeff Strickland.
Both plan to focus their efforts on educating the public and determining how to enforce the new ban that starts this week.
State Patrol Commanding Officer Maj. Mark McDonough says the department’s efforts are going to be “very compassionate” over the next few weeks while troopers and drivers get used to laws that bar adults from texting while driving, ban texting and talking for drivers under 18, and require pickup truck drivers and passengers to wear seat belts.
During a question and answer session on Tuesday, McDonough acknowledged that enforcing the texting ban could be a challenge.
He said, for example, that while the law clearly says teens are not allowed to text or call while driving, determining who is a teenager might not be so easy.
“That would be very difficult for a trooper to just effect a stop based upon a person’s age,” McDonough said, according to a transcript of the session provided by the State Patrol.
Troopers will not receive specific new training, he added, but will have to be vigilant before making traffic stops for a texting or talking driver who may be distracted and not staying in the proper lane or following too closely.
“If he’s wrong, he’s going to have to let that person go,” McDonough said. “The number one thing we have to have in our job is the ability to observe. Is it impossible? No, but it’s going to require the trooper to do some observation in order to develop the reason why he pulls them over.”
McDonough says the situation will be more clear-cut for drivers involved in accidents resulting from texting or from pickup truck drivers not wearing seat belts.
In Hall County, Strickland said, the sheriff’s office will proceed cautiously in its enforcement of the texting ban, evaluating each situation individually.
“If there’s any doubt in our mind that the person could have been using the phone (legally) then we will not issue a citation,” said Strickland.
While the month-long grace period will give drivers a chance to learn the laws, Georgia State Patrol spokesman Gordy Wright said it will also be a time for troopers to learn how to articulate their observation of a violation when they go to court.
Troopers will write warnings for violations over the next month, Wright said.
“Really, everybody’s just getting a feel for what will take place,” Wright said.
Determining the difference between a driver making a call and one sending a text message, however, may not be as difficult. Wright said texting drivers move much in the same way as one impaired by alcohol.
“The distinguishing factor would be a person dials 10 digits and then puts the phone to their ear and begins talking,” said Wright.
“That’s different than texting where you look down at the device, back up at the road, down at the device, back up at the road...and you’re really taking your eyes off the road repeatedly.”
Drivers found guilty of violating the laws on texting or talking while driving face a $150 fine and a point added to their driver’s license.
Two dozen other states have passed bans on texting while driving.
In Georgia, the adult law is named for Caleb Sorohan, a Morgan County college freshman who was killed in a head-on collision last year because he was texting while driving. The family of the 18-year-old has pushed state lawmakers to pass the texting ban since his death in December.
The Illinois-based National Safety Council estimates that 28 percent of crashes — or 1.6 million annually — are caused by drivers talking or texting on cell phones.
The push to address such dangerous driving practices has garnered the attention of celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and organizations that include the United Nations. Both launched campaigns to discourage drivers from using cell phones while behind the wheel.
Amy Stracke, a spokeswoman with AAA Auto Club South based in Tampa, Fla., said the law will mainly work as a deterrent.
“Most people are law-abiding citizens. So if there is a law on the books, most people are going to abide by that law,” Stracke said.
She added that the law is enforceable and that educating drivers will be key. “There’s not a lot of history on it, but these laws have been shown to reduce the amount of texting that’s done behind the wheel.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.