Gov. Nathan Deal signed Georgia’s distracted driving bill into law Wednesday flanked by family members of Georgia Southern University nursing students who were killed in a multi-vehicle accident on Interstate 16 in 2015.
House Bill 673 is designed to toughen laws about people using cell phones and other mobile devices while driving starting July 1. The bill was introduced by Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, but it was carried in the Senate by Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville.
Deal signed the bill into law in Statesboro while he was in the town to also sign the state budget into law.
“I am honored to sign this Hands-Free legislation here in this community, the home of Georgia Southern,” Deal said. “It’s aim is to decrease distracted driving by prohibiting the use of wireless telecommunication devices while on any public roads on our state.
“Even more so, it’s aim is to prevent the types of tragic and avoidable deaths that occurred on that stretch of I-16 on that horrible day in April of 2015.”
The significance of signing the bill in Statesboro was that it happened at Georgia Southern just over three years after the fatal accident that claimed the lives of five nursing students and left two other students, including one from Loganville, injured.
A truck driver ran into several cars, including the one the students were in, after the driver failed to slow down and stop while approaching cars that were stopped on the interstate because of traffic.
The driver later admitted in a deposition that he had been texting while driving, according to news reports after he was indicted on multiple charges, including first-degree vehicular homicide, in 2016.
“The five young women, who you see pictures of before here you today, their lives were lost some three years ago. They were all nursing students,” Deal said. “They were headed to a career that would save lives and aid the suffering of many people as a result of what they intended to devote their lives to. It is indeed a great tragedy.
“But it reminds us what can happen in an instant. A life, a life full of potential and the joy it brought to their families is suddenly taken away.”
Under the new law, it will be illegal for a driver to hold a phone or other electronic device while they are driving. Texting, reading or writing emails and watching or making videos are all banned activities.
Drivers will be allowed to talk on the phone, but they’ll have to use a hands-free method to do so. They can also use GPS navigation, voice to text technology or touch their phone to end a call or to dial a phone number.
A driver can listen to music stored on their cell phone or electronic device, but they would be barred from using online radio programs such as Spotify or Pandora in their vehicle.
“It’s second nature to pick up our phones when we are behind the wheel but if you have it in your hand when driving after July 1, you run the risk of getting a ticket,” Governor’s Office of Highway Director Harris Blackwood said. “While we encourage everyone to stay off their phones, we recommend drivers to implement now whatever they will need in order to place and receive calls without having the phone in their hands or on their bodies.”
Anyone who violates the law will be fined $50 for the first conviction and receive one point on their license. On the second conviction, the fine increases to $100 and two points on the license. After that, a conviction carries a $150 fine and three points on a license.
After the General Assembly passed the bill in March, Carson’s office said it was needed to stem increases in the number of vehicle crashes, fatalities and bodily injury. The representatives office also said that other states that have passed hands-free driving laws have seen traffic fatalities decrease by about 16 percent within the first two years.
“I think so many people saw a need for this issue,” Carson said. “I spoke to a number of the victims’ families and we could have done this bill signing in Atlanta. But after talking to the victims of the Georgia Southern nursing students crash and there has been other crashes unfortunately before and since. As much as this issue is a statewide issue.
“As much as this issue has affects everyone’s public safety. I will tell you it is a terrible issue in Atlanta traffic. It is my understanding that this issue and these crashes have devastated the Statesboro community and devastated the Georgia Southern community. I am very happy to be here today. It is the end of an 18 month road.”