On July 1, the state of Georgia passed a new law making it illegal to text on your cellphone while driving. This new ban has been in effect only for a few weeks, but it has already caused some confusion among drivers as to what they can and can’t do with their cellphones. Mark Alexander, a personal injury attorney with the Stewart Melvin & Frost law firm in Gainesville, Ga., will try and clear up some of these questions.
Question: Give a brief overview of what this new ban on texting actually covers.
Mark: As of July 1, texting while driving is now illegal for all Georgia drivers. And another new law now prohibits teen drivers from using their cellphones for any use. That means teens under 18 cannot text, talk or even listen on a cellphone while driving their cars.
Question: Since the ban went into place, some people have raised some questions that don’t seem to be spelled out in the new law. For example, is it still unlawful to text if you’re sitting still in traffic or at a stoplight?
Mark: Yes, as I understand the language of the law as written, it is against the law to text at any point while you’re driving that means sitting still in traffic, too. According to the text of the new law, the only case in which a driver can read or send a text message is if your car is legally parked. You just can’t be driving.
Nevertheless, Governor Sonny Perdue himself has stated that portions of the texting law are indeed ambiguous. He has encouraged the Legislature to assess and make additional clarifications to the texting law next year.
I will point out that the law does spell out a few other exceptions. For example, teens under the age of 18 are allowed to use their cellphones in the event of a driver emergency such as reporting a traffic accident or a road hazard. Also, truckers are still allowed to communicate with their CB radios. And drivers are still allowed to use GPS navigation devices to find their way to a destination. These exceptions and a few others like these are specifically addressed in the new legislation.
Question: Do you think this new texting law is really going to be enforced? Are we really going to see people pulled over for texting?
Mark: I’m hearing that law enforcement officers have been instructed to use their discretion as to whether to cite someone who is driving dangerously due to texting. Most likely, the texting law will be applied after the fact – if there has been a car accident in which texting was a factor in distracting a driver and causing the wreck.
Locally, I recently talked to Stephanie Woodard, Hall County Solicitor, and she assured me that she is a supporter of this new texting law based on the rising number of accidents that are caused by distracted drivers. In fact, she has encouraged local law enforcement to treat this new law seriously and to pursue enforcement if and when a driver is texting and displaying erratic driving that is endangering others on the road.
Question: What is the penalty if you’re charged with texting while driving?
Mark: You can be fined up to $150 and twice that amount if your texting leads to an accident. But probably the biggest penalty imposed by this new law is that you could be assessed points against your driver’s license, which can potentially impact your car insurance rates or even lead to a suspension of your driver’s license.
Question: How do you feel about the new texting ban? Is this an overreaction by our state legislators?
Mark: Some people may feel that way, because they question whether the new ban sets a precedent for additional restrictions. And I do feel that the new law needs to be clearer if it’s going to be enforced.
But here’s some additional perspective to consider:
Teenagers are the biggest users of texting, and they think they can do it with their eyes closed. But driving while texting is literally like driving with your eyes closed. We have been using cars for along time and phones for a long time. Only in the past 10 years have we been using both together. Now we’re discovering that the two don’t mix very well.
The facts are that nearly 6,000 people are killed – another half-million are injured – every year in car crashes that were caused by driver distracted by talking or listening to his or her cellphone. Studies point out that people talking on their phone while driving are four times more likely to crash their car.
One recent study found that drivers using their cellphones have more impairment than those who are legally intoxicated.