As discussed in a previous blog post, several efforts are underway to prohibit drivers from talking on cell phones or otherwise using the devices without some form of hands-free device or use of speakerphone. One of those efforts involved a bill introduced to prohibit, statewide, the use of mobile phones except with some sort of hands-free function. The bill and other efforts are an attempt to reduce the increasing number of deaths and serious injuries resulting from car accidents involving drivers distracted by phones and similar devices. Statistics show that the number of fatalities in automobile accidents increased by one third from 2014 to 2016, and many blame the rise on distracted driving.
On February 28, the bill (available here) passed the Georgia House of Representatives, and will now be considered by the Georgia Senate. If the bill is approved by the Senate (or if the Senate makes changes that are agreed to by the House) and it is signed into law by the Governor, it will mark a significant change to the law regarding use of mobile devices by drivers. It would amend the Official Code of Georgia, OCGA 40-6-241, to physically hold a phone or related mobile device while driving, or reach for such a device if the driver could not remain in a seated, restrained position. It would also prohibit watching, or recording, a video while operating a vehicle, but would allow voice-based control of such devices, including voice-to-text usage, and use of the phone as a GPS navigation system. Otherwise, the bill makes it illegal to "write, send, or read" any text-based communication from the phone or other mobile device. The bill does not expressly discuss use of hands-free devices for talking on the phone, but the prohibition on holding the device would appear to require such devices (or use of a speakerphone). It does state that wireless earpieces and similar devices do not fall under the definitions covered by the law, meaning their use would be allowed.
The new rules would not apply to use while the vehicle is parked, when used by public safety officials or utility workers in the course of their job, or when used to report an emergency. Violation of the law would be a misdemeanor punishable by no less than a fine of $300, and would result in 2 points on the driver's record.
Texting while driving was already banned in Georgia under prior legislation (with the exception or hands-free texting), but law enforcement officials have complained that they are many times unable to tell what someone is doing on a phone, and therefore cannot enforce the current law effectively. Prohibiting the holding of a phone would potentially make their enforcement job easier.
House member Bob Trammel, a sponsor of the bill, noted that “Distracted driving is a public safety and public health issue for all Georgia motorists, passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists." Although the bill is likely to be controversial, it may result in safer highways, and fewer auto-accident related deaths and injuries, if it passes. It should be noted that the bill may change from its current form, and the specific provisions may be modified. It is also possible that it may not pass the Senate, meaning it would not be enacted this year.
If the law passes, it is possible that violation of the law could be relevant in Georgia personal injury lawsuits. Under the current law, if a person distracted by talking on the phone while driving causes a wreck, it is usually not possible to pursue a punitive damages claim against them in a personal injury lawsuit because the law (OCGA 40-6-241), as currently written, permits the "proper use" of a mobile device. If use of a phone while driving that involves holding the phone is expressly prohibited, the law governing punitive damages for distracted drivers may change as well, should the Georgia Supreme Court or Court of Appeals address the issue.