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Police: Hands free law hasn’t been ‘silver bullet’ they hoped for to end traffic woes

Despite thousands of tickets being written statewide, Gainesville Police Sgt. Justin Martin said he feels the hands-free law has not had the intended effect.

“When the law was passed last year, we were very hopeful that that was going to be the silver bullet for a lot of our traffic problems, because we attribute a lot of our crashes to distracted driving. Unfortunately, what it looks like is rather than obeying the new law or changing their behavior to comply with that, what a lot of folks have done is change their behavior to get around it,” he said.

Now more and more drivers are seen holding their phones lower, taking their eyes further from the roadway, Martin said.

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.

From July 1, 2018 to May of this year, Georgia State Patrol has written 22,327 citations related to the hands-free law.

As of June 21, there had been 666 traffic fatalities compared to 686 at that time the year before. That’s only a 3% decrease after ramped-up media campaigns and awareness surrounding cellphone usage behind the wheel.

Martin said the department’s traffic unit has strived to be “more creative” in catching violators, such as posing as construction workers and panhandlers. 

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 a majority of first-time offenders do attempt to resolve it by proving they have installed the hands-free technology.

Though the punishment is minor for first offenders, there are still those that want to take the citation all the way to trial.

“They’ll bring their texting history, but you and I both know that you can use data apps for messaging and video that don’t show up in your SMS messages,” Woodard said.

The solicitor general said the other main argument was insisting that the officer cannot prove he/she saw the offender using the phone.

“People forget when they are in the glass bubble of the car that we can see in as well. The officers describe very specific behavior … and the few we’ve had taken to court, it’s the same as hearing an officer give oral testimony on a speeding,” she said.

April was distracted driving awareness month, and Martin said the department performed a survey on Jesse Jewell Parkway.

“I want to say it was one in four cars went by (with a driver) with a phone in their hand, and that’s the central artery through downtown,” he said.

Across Georgia State Patrol, Gainesville Police and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, April saw the highest number of citations and warnings.

There are six positions and a supervisor on the Gainesville Police Department traffic unit, which had an informal grace period for the first few months of the new law.

The department handed out roughly 2,000 fliers informing people about the law.

“During those two months, we gave out (those fliers) at every traffic stop, every wreck we worked. We were giving those things out to everybody we could,” Martin said.

Though the offenders in her office tend to be younger, Woodard said she encounters people of all ages.

“It’s a really interesting talk to have with a grandparent who’s texting or violating the hands-free (law), but we’re having it,” she said.

Woodard said the response she has seen from the community is that “penalties for distracted driving are not serious enough.”

“The discussion I hear among the prosecutors is a desire for it to be treated like any other misdemeanor with a case-by-case basis,” she said.

That may mean more points, but potentially an avenue for judges and prosecutors to have more discretion in fashioning a punishment that will be more effective.

For Martin, the only solution is finding a way to make distracted driving “socially unacceptable.”

“Impaired driving is frowned upon socially now. Distracted driving should be looked at the same way,” he said.

Georgia State Patrol citations:

July 2018-December: 8,389

January: 2,208

February: 2,049

March: 2,820

April: 3,873

May: 2,988

July 2018-May 31: 22,327

Gainesville Police citations and warnings:

July 2018-December: 930

January: 187

February: 121

March: 148

April: 179

May: 166

July 2018-May 31: 1,731

Hall County Sheriff’s Office citations and warnings

July 2018-December: 140 citations, 292 warnings

January: 41 citations, 29 warnings

February: 40 citations, 23 warnings

March: 39 citations, 23 warnings

April: 82 citations, 29 warnings

May : 44 citations, 17 warnings

June :34 citations, 12 warnings