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Laws limit cell phone use by teens, adults

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Starting July 1, Georgia's youngest drivers will be prohibited from using cell phones while driving.

A ban on cell phone usage among drivers under 18 was signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue, on June 4. He also signed a separate bill effectively restricting cell phone use for all drivers in Georgia.

House Bill 23, sponsored by State Rep. Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City), makes it illegal for anyone under 18 to use a cell phone while driving. "We need to do everything possible to focus young drivers on the road ahead," Perdue said of House Bill 23. "I want to thank Rep. Ramsey for working hard on this bill."

Senate Bill 360, sponsored by Sen. Jack Murphy (R-Cumming), takes the stipulations of House Bill 23 a step farther. The senate bill makes it illegal for someone "who is 18 years of age, or older, or who has a Class C license [to] operate a motor vehicle on any public road, or highway of this state, while using a wireless telecommunications device to write, send, or read any text based communication, including, but not limited to a text message, instant message, e-mail, or Internet data."

Perdue spokesman, Bert Brantley, said the governor did express concern with some provisions in the senate bill before signing it into law. The governor agreed to sign the bill, however, with the assurance that its sponsors would address his concerns next year.

"I think the governor was always comfortable with [House Bill 23]," Brantley said. "The difference on Senate Bill 360 makes some use of the cell phone illegal for everyone, but brings into question how would the officer know how the driver was using the phone."

The provisions in the senate bill do not apply to those in lawfully parked motor vehicles, or those reporting a traffic accident, serious road hazard, or medical emergency. Nor does the law apply to public safety professionals and, in some cases, public utility employees performing in the scope of their official duties. Those reporting the perpetration, or potential perpetration, of a crime also are exempt, according to the bill.

In the days leading up to July 1, local law-enforcement agencies are expected to review the new legislation, and how the cell phone usage bans can be practically enforced.

Henry County Sheriff Keith McBrayer said his office will have a chance to review the measure, as well as ways to enforce the new law at an upcoming "legal updates" class.

McBrayer said he could not comment on the legislation. However, he said distractions from the use of electronics in motor vehicles is a concern for members of the law-enforcement community. "It's been an increasing issue," he said. "Years ago, that wasn't an issue."

Area schools have policies governing the use of electronic devices on school grounds, because school officials deem them distractions during class.

"The use of cell phones has been limited for various reasons, including disruption of instruction," said Connie Rutherford, the community development coordinator for Henry County Schools. "The purpose of the policy is to protect the instructional day, and give administrators the discretion to issue a consequence, if the guidelines of the policy are violated."

Bert Brantley, Perdue's spokesman, said violators of either House Bill 23, or Senate Bill 360, may be convicted of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of $150, and may lose their driver's license.

"I think the hope is that, in the use of that discretion, law enforcement will use their experience and their knowledge ... to make sure that you're really getting those who are violating the law," Brantley said. "We'll have to see how this works, and that will help inform the process next year."