The law in Georgia is pretty clear: Don’t drive and text. Do it, and you could face a $150 fine for the offense or $300 if you have an accident in the process.
What’s less clear is how to enforce the law.
“It’s such a hard, difficult law to prosecute,” said Maj. John Gibson with the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office.
The law went into effect in July 2010 and bans not only texting but Internet surfing and sending or receiving email. It applies to cellphones, computers, tablets and other kinds of similar devices. Drivers under 18 years old aren’t even allowed to talk on the phone except in emergencies.
There are issues that make enforcement difficult. The law says it’s OK for anyone over 18 to talk on a cellphone while driving, as long as they follow all the other road rules in the process. That said, how do you know if someone is dialing a phone number as opposed to sending a text?
What if someone appears to be tapping on a phone, but the officer pulls them over and they deny it? Does the officer then go to the trouble of getting a warrant or the person’s phone records to see if they were telling the truth? Does the officer use a probable cause justification to search without a warrant and run the risk of being accused of violating someone’s civil rights? In some cases, yes, officials said, but not always.
“Obviously, it’s easy (to tell someone is texting) when you’re sitting there in an unmarked car seeing somebody sitting there texting next to you,” Gibson said. “I wish we had a better way of doing it.”
Until then, many agencies aren’t even tracking how many warnings and citations they issue because there are still so few.
“You have to be almost parallel to them to see them looking down and texting,” said Georgia State Patrol Cpl. David Phillips.
Traffic accidents can be difficult to tie back to cellphone distraction, but Phillips said investigators can obtain phone records or look at phones on the scene in many cases to determine whether the phone was in use.
Dalton Police Department Officer Steve Zahn said the law has always been anything done in a car that makes you a less safe driver is illegal. Cellphone use is among the more prevalent distractions, and Zahn said an informal survey he did in March showed just how common it was. Some 24 of 100 drivers he counted on West Walnut Avenue were using a cellphone. On Glenwood Avenue, 21 percent of drivers were using a cellphone, and on Thornton Avenue, 15 percent were using one.
Dalton resident Amanda Bryant said using a cellphone at all while driving should be outlawed.
“People just don’t drive well when on the phone,” she said. “I am 29 years old and have a cell. I just think it’s dangerous to drive while using one. If I have a call come across while driving, I pull over to look and to answer.”
Justin Gilreath of Dalton said laws, by themselves, don’t prevent crime.
“Unfortunately, you can pass all the laws in the world and it won’t stop anyone from texting while driving,” he said. “DUI laws have been in place for decades, yet if you open the paper every day, it is always the common thread of all the area arrests.”
“People are going to do what they want to do whether it is a law or not,” agreed Amanda Hester of Chatsworth. “There are other things that cause distractions, too, and (to single one out) isn’t going to stop accidents.”
Officials agreed cellphone usage isn’t the only distraction, and Zahn said Dalton police officers are focusing on educating drivers for now and have issued very few citations. He also wants people to be aware that driving distracted in any way is illegal.
“The law actually states that anything you do in a vehicle that causes you to be a less safe driver you can actually be cited for, and that law has always been in effect,” Zahn said. “The big issue was drivers, especially between the ages of 16 and I want to say 24, that’s where you saw your biggest issue with cellphone use. They’re not the only ones, but they’re the biggest group.”
Phillips said he worked a case in Catoosa County in which a teen driver flipped his pickup truck because he was distracted by his phone. The teen’s girlfriend had called him repeatedly, Phillips said, and he crashed as he was reaching over to turn the device off so he wouldn’t have to keep hearing it.
“He was distracted by the device even though he wasn’t using it,” Phillips said.
Zahn said the police department has several educational programs in schools to warn teens of the dangers of distracted driving, just like they warn them about not drinking and driving.
“It’s actually more dangerous to drive distracted than it is to drive under the influence,” he said. “I’m not saying one’s any better than the other, but we need to start really focusing more on this distracted driving.”
Officers have discretion in deciding whether to cite a driver for a violation or just warn them. Even if the officer isn’t sure the evidence is strong enough for a texting while driving case, there are often other violations as a result of driving distracted that can land a driver a citation, officials said. Phillips said someone recently pulled into his lane because they were too busy texting on their phone to pay attention.
For more information
To request the Dalton Police Department offer an educational presentation to your group, call the traffic enforcement unit at (706) 278-9085, extension 124.
To read the distracted driving laws, go to www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/gacode and go to 40-6-241, 40-6-241.1 and 40-6-241.2. Law officers, utility workers and other emergency personnel are allowed under the law to use computers, phones and other devices in the course of their duties.
Tips for managing distractions
• Recognize that driving requires your full attention.
• Pull off the road in a safe spot before you use your cellphone, GPS or any other mobile device.
• Plan your trip in advance — program GPS systems, satellite radios, pre-set radio stations and climate controls, etc., before you begin driving.
• Before you get behind the wheel, familiarize yourself with features of your vehicle’s equipment.
• Use message-taking functions and return calls when you are stopped at a safe location.
• Where possible, ask a passenger to help you in activities that may be distracting.
• Secure mobile devices and any other objects that may become missiles in a crash.
• Avoid smoking, eating, drinking and reading while driving.
• Pull safely off the road and out of traffic to deal with children.
• Do your personal grooming at home — not in the car.
• Review maps before hitting the road.
• Monitor traffic conditions before engaging in activities that could divert your attention from driving.
Source: The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety