Law enforcement agencies across Georgia have issued thousands of tickets to motorists on their phones while behind the wheel in the year since a new law banning the practice went into effect.
The precise number of distracted driving citations and the total amount of fines local communities across the state saw from those tickets is unclear. Local courts adjudicate citations and do not report fines levied on drivers to the state or a central database.
The Georgia Department of Public Safety, which includes the Georgia State Patrol, issued 24,862 hands-free law citations between July 1, 2018, and June 30 of this year. The state does not track how many citations jurisdictions issued.
“It’s a law that affects everyone’s safety, and for us, we’re in the business of hoping to change drivers’ behavior,” said Lt. Stephanie Stallings, a spokesperson for the Georgia State Patrol.
In Georgia, a first-time offense carries with it a $50 fine, while a second offense is a $100 fine and a third-time has a $150 fine. The Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) reported 12,097 driver convictions specific to the unlawful use of a wireless device.
Drivers could also receive points on their license, but citations in Georgia do not necessarily equate to a conviction. For example, if a motorist who received a ticket goes to court with some proof they obtained a hands-free device, judges may reduce the infraction to a warning.
While motorists often decry such initiatives as a means for raising revenue, experts seem to agree that hands-free laws help stem dangerous – and potentially deadly – behavior.
“Part of what we do with our laws, especially with criminal law, is even if we don’t expect it to change behavior, we want to express our social value that this conduct is wrong,” said Michael Benza, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. “We do often pass criminal law, knowing that it will never be enforced or difficult to enforce or might even be struck down because we want to express our moral value.”
Added Benza: “This one is pretty easy to see as a safety issue. It may have some aspect of revenue generation, but it’s not going to be big enough to, in and of itself, justify the law.”
In recent years, many states have approved similar laws. Lawmakers will often watch their colleagues in other states and follow their lead, especially if a law withstands a legal challenge, Benza said.
Only three states remain in which texting while driving is not a primary offense, one that is grounds for an officer to pull over a motorist, said Kenneth A. Cutler, an attorney with Cutler Rader, P.L., a South Florida personal injury and commercial litigation law firm.
“While there are many different types of distractions – changing the radio station to avoid commercials, applying makeup, playing with the navigation system or eating a burger,” Cutler said. “By far, the most dangerous is operating a mobile phone. These activities include texting, dialing a number, checking email, surfing the internet or even following your smartphone directions.”