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What you can and can’t do with your phone while driving come July 1
Before hands-free law takes effect, state, local officials try to prepare drivers
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Georgians have two weeks to prepare for the new hands-free driving law coming July 1.

Drivers caught using a mobile phone or similar device face a $50 fine and a point on their license, according to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. A second citation comes with a $100 fine and two points, a third $150 and three points.

If a driver racks up 15 points in two years, his or her license will be suspended, according to the Georgia Department of Drivers Services.

Local and state law enforcement are on a public information blitz for the next few weeks, according Gainesville Police Department Sgt. Justin Martin, who oversees the department’s traffic unit.

Officers will hand out a pamphlet explaining the new law to drivers during every traffic stop made in coming weeks.

“Our first priority is going to be educating the public,” Martin said.

There are a wealth of explainers of the details of the law online, including at the Office of Highway Safety itself. Here are a couple of highlights from the office:

  • A driver cannot have a phone in his or her hand or use any part of their body to support a phone. Drivers can only use their phones to make or receive phone calls by using speakerphone, earpiece, wireless headphone, phone connected to vehicle or an electronic watch. GPS navigation devices are allowed.

  • Music streaming apps can be used provided the driver activates and programs them when they are parked. Drivers cannot touch their phones to do anything to their music apps when they are on the road.

Martin noted that GPS devices are allowed only when mounted on a dashboard or used with some other hands-free device. Drivers also can’t place a phone call or enter GPS directions while driving.

Video is not allowed. If you’re using a streaming service that includes video, you can be ticketed.

While it’s not legal for drivers to use headphones to listen to music while driving, headphones that include a microphone can be used for communication behind the wheel, according to the office.

The explainer from the Office of Highway Safety also includes tips for commercial drivers and school bus drivers.

First responders are exempt from the law while on duty, as are drivers reporting a crash or other emergency and utility employees responding to an emergency.

Using a phone behind the wheel is only legal when parked, which doesn’t include being stopped at a red light.

The intent of the law is to cut down on traffic deaths and collisions, which are driving up the cost of auto insurance in Georgia. Martin noted there have been 629 traffic deaths in the state this year.

In Gainesville, the hot spots for wrecks are in the expected places: Dawsonville Highway, John Morrow Parkway, Jesse Jewell Parkway and E.E. Butler Parkway, according to Martin.

Just how many of those can be blamed on distracted driving is unclear, but Martin said that — even though he’s in a large, black-and-white SUV with Gainesville Police Department decals — he spots someone using a phone at a red light every day.

Most new vehicles sold today have Bluetooth connectivity and are relatively easily connected with most smartphones on the market, but the law is causing some anxiety among owners of older vehicles, which usually lack Bluetooth connectivity.

With smartphone voice control still spotty — for a bit of fun, try getting Siri to quickly open Google Maps and take you to anywhere on E.E. Butler Parkway — drivers are heading into stores like Street Toys to find some new hardware to comply with the law.

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Mike Mason, assistant manager at Street Toys, looks over orders in the Hilton Drive store on Tuesday, June 1. Street Toys installs integrated Bluetooth systems in older vehicles, allowing drives to play music, take calls and send messages using voice control. The store has seen its foot traffic increase in the weeks leading up to the new hands free law taking effect on July 1. - photo by Nick Bowman
“It’s scaring people, and the reason it’s scaring people is that’s the point,” said Bill Nealis, owner of the out-of-the-way accessories shop on Hilton Drive. “I can’t stand people texting; I’d rather see people talking on the phone while they’re driving.”

Nealis sells car and truck accessories: speakers, radios, trim pieces and other equipment in his retail shop. While the store’s bread-and-butter is in the shop customizing cars for dealerships in the area, he’s seen a large increase in walk-ins to the packed retail floor looking for a solution to their Bluetooth problem.

“I don’t think it’s going to slow down,” Nealis said. “If they keep enforcing it, it won’t slow down. Hopefully we have more manufacturers that will help us sell more product. I would like to find something that’s not so expensive that I can clip on my visor.”

Hands-free devices can range from the relatively cheap dashboard mounts to battery-powered Bluetooth devices that connect to and control a mobile phone.

Stevie Jackson, owner of Trinity Delivery Service in Gainesville, said he’s had no trouble using a Garmin hands-free device with his courier business for the past three years.

“It’s simple; you can’t beat it for $200,” Jackson told The Times on Friday.

Likewise, Mike Partridge at Gainesville Economy Heating and Air said he’s growing more and more frustrated through the years dealing with drivers who aren’t paying attention to the road.

The four trucks used in his business have had hands-free devices for more than a decade because of a close call Partridge had years ago.

“I was going up Green Street one day, and I was fiddling with the darn telephone and I almost run over a Volkswagen with a 14,000-pound truck,” Partridge said. “I said, ‘Not anymore. There’s got to be a better way.’”

Patridge, owner of the company who talked with the Times via a Bluetooth device while driving his truck, said all of his trucks have been hands-free since then.

While there are some inexpensive options, a truly hands-free system integrated into the car itself, rather than temporarily suction-cupped to a windshield, can get pricey. Nealis said with parts and labor, adding Bluetooth to a car is likely to cost about $300 or more.

That’s about what Sgt. Todd Casper, with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, paid to get a hands-free system wired into his 15-year-old Jeep.

“It’s a really good system,” he said, noting he could place calls and send messages using only his voice.

He’s hoping more people will adopt alternatives to holding a phone while driving, including more voice-activated systems.

Casper recalled pulling someone over for distracted driving a few days ago in northwest Hall.

“I stopped a lady the other day, I met her on Chestatee Road, and this is how bad it was: I was in a pretty good straightaway, and I never saw her look up the whole time I was approaching her,” Casper said. “I turned around and pulled her over … and she goes, ‘Oh, was I speeding?’”

The driver didn’t even see Casper’s patrol car pass by. He went back to check his dashcam video, and she had her eyes off of the road for a full four seconds while approaching his vehicle.

She was doing 38 in a 45. He was just below the speed limit.

“Our combined speed was 80 mph,” Casper said. “For four seconds I had her in sight and she never looked up. … An 80 mph impact is a heck of a crash.”