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Georgia distracted driving bill being signed by Deal on Wednesday, goes into effect July 1
Nathan Deal
Gov. Nathan Deal

Georgia’s new distracted driving law will take effect July 1 after Gov. Nathan Deal signs the “Hands-Free Georgia Act” into law on Wednesday, May 2.

It will be a crime to operate a phone with any part of the body while driving when House Bill 673 hits the streets in July — no more getting away with shooting that quick text at a light or skimming that email at 60 mph.

Fines start at $50 and increase depending on the number of violations.

“You can’t hold the phone in your hand and support it with your body, and furthermore you can’t record a video or watch a video, i.e. stream a video,” said Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the bill’s sponsor who also serves on the Georgia House Insura

In Georgia, it’s illegal to text behind the wheel, but drivers are allowed to dial and hold their phone, making it difficult for officers to tell when someone is simply making a call or sending a text.

At the least, distracted driving has been an irritant for drivers since smartphones became ubiquitous.

“How many times do you see in Gainesville somebody texting at a light and miss the green light or they’re holding up traffic because they’re not moving forward?” Carson said.

But at the worst, distracted driving can be deadly.

Gainesville Police Department Sgt. Kevin Holbrook told The Times earlier this year that distracted driving is “one of our leading contributing factors to crashes here in the city.”

The cost of distracted driving will be on display on Wednesday, when Deal will sign the bill at the Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport during a ceremony attended by the families of the five Georgia Southern nursing students killed by a tractor-trailer in 2015 on Interstate 16. The driver of the truck admitted to using his mobile phone to text prior to the crash but denied using it when the crash occurred. He was sentenced to five years in prison as part of a plea deal.

Short of causing injury and death, distracted driving is driving up Georgia’s car insurance costs.

“Insurance rates have increased dramatically all over the state, especially in the metro areas. We decided to look at that and go through a study committee, and … it kept coming back to distracted driving,” Carson said. “That can come in various forms, but I think we all know the vast majority of distracted driving is caused by electronic devices more than anything else.”

He noted there are more than 200 companies offering insurance plans in the state, and the increasing frequency of wrecks on Georgia roads is driving up costs for all of them. Higher costs for insurers have led more of them to offer “bundling” deals, where auto and home insurance are offered by the same company through the same plan.

“Most insurance companies are losing anywhere between 5 and 10 percent on auto policies and they make it up on home policies,” Carson said. “If we really want to have lower premiums, we’ve got to lower claims.”

And to lower claims, the state is taking aim at practically all use of mobile devices while driving. Drivers may no longer initiate a call while driving and must have a hands-free device or a dashboard mount in order to carry on a call.

The Georgia State Patrol and the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety plan a 90-day grace period for drivers beginning in July, during which drivers will be given warnings while a public information campaign advertises the changes in the law, Carson said.

At the local level, it’s not yet decided how law enforcement will handle enforcement in the law’s early days.

“The leadership in our department is still examining what approach the Sheriff’s Office will take when the law goes into effect this summer,” said Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Derreck Booth.

Whether that means a grace period for drivers or fines beginning July 1 has yet to be determined by the county. Holbrook said the city will follow the plan set by Georgia State Patrol.

Carson said states that have adopted similar laws have seen decreases in traffic deaths.

“We’ve already tentatively seen a slight decrease in fatalities in our state, and I think it’s because people are paying more attention to what they’re doing,” he said. “The bottom line to this legislation is that it’s going to save lives.”