By Johnny Jackson
Law enforcement officers across Georgia will be on the lookout for careless drivers this holiday weekend. Starting today, however, officers will pay closer attention to drivers who appear to be distracted by their cell phones.
New laws, which limit cell phone use by drivers, were signed on June 4, by Gov. Sonny Perdue and will be enforced today. The laws ban cell phone use by drivers under age 18, and restrict cell phone use for all other drivers in Georgia.
Specifically, 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.
Senate Bill 360, sponsored by Sen. Jack Murphy (R-Cumming), 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."
Henry County has handled 3,345 automobile accidents this year, since Jan. 1, said Henry County Police Capt. Jason Bolton on Tuesday. Bolton said 85 of the county's accident reports noted driver distraction as a contributing factor, "though that's not to say that those distractions are all caused by cell phones or electronic devices."
The police captain said there is no particular way the police department ranks cell phone use among possible driver distractions in Henry County. "It's difficult to say with certainty, as cell phone distractions, if even accurately reported to police, usually fall into the general category of 'distractions' on the accident report template," Bolton added. "Like all traffic violations, if an officer observes what appears to be a violation of the new law, he or she will initiate a traffic stop to investigate further."
Clayton County has experienced a similar volume of automobile accidents since the start of the year, said Clayton County Police's Lt. Tina Daniel. "We've had 2,446 accidents in Clayton County, between Jan. 1 and May 31 of this year," Daniel said.
"We had 2,600 last year, during that same time. However, there has been a lot of awareness about texting while driving, and personally, I think that it could have made a difference [in the number of reported accidents].
"There is so much done while driving, and it's really gotten out of hand," she added. "And if someone decides to completely stop using their cell phone while driving, I think that would be a good thing. We may never know how many lives would be saved by doing it."
"We're basically looking for people who are not exercising due care," said Daniel. She said patrol officers will continue looking out for drivers who appear to be distracted, or impaired, on the roadways. An example of a distracted, or impaired, driver, she explained, might be "one who fails to maintain his or her lane, or someone stopped at a green light because they're looking down and texting on their cell phone."
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 a point on their driver's license, according to Bob Dallas, the director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.
Dallas said law enforcement agencies throughout the state have been directed to use their existing training in highway safety to observe, pinpoint, and investigate violations of the laws. Dallas said he expects patrol officers will develop and learn new skills associated with spotting violations as the laws mature in day-to-day application in the field. He added that other laws surrounding safer driving -- like those governing impaired driving or requiring safety belts -- were established over the period of several years.
Dallas reported that an average of 6,000 fatalities a year, nationally, are related to distractions from electronic devices.
To learn more about the new cell phone laws, visit the Governor's Office of Highway Safety at www.gohs.org.