For every 11 drivers with a Hall County Sheriff’s Office deputy’s blue lights in their rear-view mirror, the last one is walking away with a ticket and a court date if they touched their cellphone while driving.
“We’re kind of getting to the point now to where we’re going to be writing more citations and less warnings,” said sheriff’s office Sgt. Todd Casper.
The Georgia Hands-Free Law 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.
In the three months of the new law targeting distracted drivers, Casper said the warning to citation ratio has been about 10 to 1. Since July 1, the sheriff’s office has written 63 tickets for distracted driving and/or texting while driving.
“We’ve had a lot of compliance with the new law. And if you’ve observed, we’re way behind in fatalities this year, which is a good thing, as opposed to last year,” Casper said.
As of Oct. 1, the Georgia Department of Transportation reported 1,056 traffic fatalities in Georgia this year. Casper said there were 118 more deaths last year around this time, which results in a 10 percent decrease.
Though Casper and the members of the county’s Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic unit said there has been a great deal of awareness and education on the law, some people just can’t take a hint.
“We’ve had some officers come up beside a car at a light and say, ’Hey, you can’t be on your phone.’ Then they drive on down the road and they’re right back on the phone after they just talked to them,” he said.
Idling Friday, Oct. 5, in the Featherbone Communiversity parking lot, Gainesville Police Officer Derek Evatt was able to pull over two drivers within minutes of one another during the rush hour.
Gainesville Police Department officers kicked off the first month of the new law with 123 warnings and 17 citations. That dynamic switched in August, when those on patrol wrote 48 warnings and 106 citations.
Officer Larry Sanford, the Gainesville component of the HEAT grant awarded in 2017 by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said he has seen more of the phone mounts and hands-free devices. Despite witnessing more of the technology needed for compliance, Sanford has still encountered a great deal of texting and drivers holding the phone to their ears.
“A lot of what you see is people still looking down just like they were before as if they were texting on their phone. A lot of it now is instead of it being up higher where they used to, they’re holding it down lower,” he said.
In terms of ticketing discretion, Sanford said officers in the traffic unit have been “more leaning toward enforcement rather than warnings.”
Across the state, Georgia State Patrol reported a total of 3,179 citations since the law change. After issuing 962 tickets in July, state patrol wrote 1,211 citations in August. In September, there were 1,006 citations statewide by state patrol.
The category with the most change from month to month was “holding/supporting” the cellphone or electronic device, according to the state patrol’s data.
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.
Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said she has not noticed anyone use this rule since the law changed. In her entire office, there were six cases of someone bringing in a hands-free device.
If a person comes to the solicitor’s office to dismiss the charge, an investigator will verify it has been installed.
“I’d much rather the financial resources of the citizen be spent coming into compliance with the law than simply paying a fine or a penalty and still not being in compliance,” she said.
In her anecdotal experience, the law’s efficacy is most evident with more mature drivers who may need to use the phone for their professions.
“Looking at the July, August and half of September tickets that we’ve seen come through court, I’ve seen a decrease in adult professionals being charged. I haven’t seen a significant decrease in, I would say, mid- to late 20s and younger,” she said.
Sanford said the city’s officers have focused their efforts around Touchdown Drive and Gainesville High School as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Bradford Street.
“We’ll stand on the side out of the roadway and we’ll just wait for vehicles to come up to the intersection and stop at the stop sign. We’re there just looking seeing if they’re on it,” he said.
Distracted Driving tickets
July: 123 warnings, 17 citations
August: 48 warnings, 106 citations
September: 42 warnings, 65 citations
*Citations and warnings are for the specific subsections concerning the Hands-Free Law under the distracted driving statute
Hall County Sheriff’s Office
July: 18 citations
August: 20 citations
September: 25 citations
Georgia State Patrol (statewide)
July: 962 citations
August: 1,211 citations
September: 1,006 citations