Georgia’s “Hands-Free” Act

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After a terrible collision killed five nursing students near Statesboro, Georgia, their families began a campaign to have Georgia’s legislature establish specific laws forbidding the use of electonic devices while behind the wheel.   Their aim was to prevent the sort of distracted driving that led to the untimely demise of these five promising young women.  Those efforts culminated in the passage of H.B. 673, which was subsequently signed into law by Governor Deal on May 2, 2018.   The statute establishes strict rules governing the use of wireless telecommunication devices by drivers. The legislation becomes effective starting July 1, 2018, but is anticipated to be subject to a 30 day grace period during which officers will issue only warnings.  The hope is that the grace period will help to spread awareness of the change in law.

What Devices Are Covered?

This legislation is broadly worded in an effort to cover as many devices as possible, while also specifying several wireless devices that are excluded from coverage.   The list of devices that are forbidden from use include cellular telephones, portable telephones, “text messaging devices,” personal digital assistants, standalone computers and GPS recievers.  The statute also includes a “catch-all” clause that includes “a wearable device, or any other substantially similar device that is used to initiate or receive communications or information.”  It also covers the use of standalone electronic devices which store audio or video which a user can retrieve on demand, like MP3 or Digital Video players.  Specifically excluded from coverage under the statute are radios, citizens band radios, commercial 2-way radios, subscription based emergency communication, orescribed medical devices, amateur or ham radio devices, or in vehicle security, navigation, or remote diagnostic systems.

What is Forbidden?

The legislation establishes various acts as misdemeanor offenses, and sets forth a schedule of fines and “points” which are assessed against the driver’s record, and can result in revocation of the offender’s license if allowed to accumulate.  The act makes it unlawful to physically hold or use (with any part of your body) any of the specified devices.  The act further bars the use of  these devices while they are in your lap, while pinned between your ear and shoulder as well.   The only circumstances in which any of the listed devices may be used in anything other than a totally hands free manner are either when the vehicle is lawfully parked, or when reporting a traffic accident, medical emergency, fire, or crime.

It is important to note that “lawfully parked” for purposes of the act requires the vehicle to be off or beside the road in an area open to parking.   Merely stopping at a stop sign or red light isn’t sufficient to invoke the parking exception.  In addition to phone calls, the act forbids creating, writing, sending or reading text communications while driving. Prohibited text includes e-mails, instant messages or internet data.

While it should go without saying, the act also specifies that watching or making video while driving is also prohibited. The statute does permit hands free operation of these devices including hands free use of the devices to send or receive text messages. It also explicitly permits use of GPS devices. There is a limited exception to allow drivers to call in road accidents.

What are the Consequences?

Many drivers who are cited for violating the act will simply pay the fine to avoid having to appear in court.   If a driver does this in a situation where the citation was issued after a collision or injury occurred, that payment will treated as a guilty plea, which constitutes an admission against interest that should resolve any dispute as to the driver’s liability for the injuries suffered.   In that situation, the only remaining issues at trial would be causation and damages.

The act provides for fines and points to be assessed against violators of the statute.  These assessments will increase with each successive violation in a 24 month period.   First time offenders will be assessed a $50 fine and 1 point against the offender’s license.   A second offense in a 24 month period will results in twice the fine and twice the points being assessed, and a third offense in a 24 months span would likewise result in three times the fine and 3 points.

Potential for Punitive Damages?

A single violation of this act will not provide an adequate basis to justify an award of punitive damages.  The question of whether distracted driving is enough to support punitive damages has been addressed repeatedly by Georgia’s courts. The controlling decision is Lindsey v. Clinch County Glass Co., 312 Ga.App. 534, 718 S.E.2d 806(2011). In that case the Court of Appeals ruled that even gross negligence would not justify punitive damages.  While the Court cautions that its opinion should not be read as completely and forever barring the recovery of punitive damages in distracted driving cases, it states that evidence of multiple prior instances of distracted driving will be necessary before a jury can properly consider the issue.

This new statute clearly establishes that using wireless telecommunications devices when driving violates of Georgia’s rules of the road.  It has not made punitive damages any more likely in cases of distracted driving, however.  This is an evolving question to watch.   The biggest focus for drivers in the immediate term should be on changing their habits to avoid citations and fines.

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