By THOMAS LYNN
VALDOSTA — They are driving the car that just passed you on Interstate 75 at 90 miles per hour.
They are holding up traffic after the light has turned green, just sitting there looking down.
They are in front of you swerving across the centerline.
They are everywhere.
They are young and old.
They are male and female.
They are driving sedans, economy cars, luxury vehicles, SUVs, pickup trucks and even big rigs.
They can be spotted on almost any road.
Their heads bowed as if in prayer, texting, looking at a phone, as their vehicles rush along streets and highways.
That's despite Georgia's hands-free law that went into effect July 1, 2018. Still, as enforcement of the law tightens, more drivers may be getting the message.
If by getting the message you mean getting tickets, across the state of Georgia 8,389 drivers were cited for distracted driving last year.
State and local law-enforcement officials report just a slight drop in the number of traffic fatalities since enforcement of the new law began last summer.
At least 1,457 people were killed on Georgia roadways last year.
While that’s about 90 fewer deaths than in 2017, the 2018 number is likely to grow as year-end reports are tallied.
Still, Georgia has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the U.S.
Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said he credits the hands-free law with being a factor in the decrease, but said he thinks it will take a couple of years before there is enough data to back up his hunch.
He said there were fewer crashes where a driver left their lane of travel or rear-ended another vehicle, which are often the telltale signs of a distracted driver.
“I don’t want to sound like we’re not encouraged. We are encouraged,” Blackwood said. “Anytime you’ve got the needle moving in the right direction, it’s a good year. But we’re still one of the highest fatality states in the nation.”
An alarming rise in traffic deaths was a driving force behind the state’s hands-free law passed last legislative session. Skyrocketing auto insurance premiums was another reason.
Law enforcement officials across the SunLight Project coverage area – Valdosta, Tifton, Thomasville, Dalton, Moultrie and Milledgeville, Ga. – agree that the law was needed.
But, how well is it working?
The hands-free law is regarded by the people we talked to for this report as good law, but it will take more time to tell just how well it working.
In this context working means saving lives.
Three Stages of Compliance
Cpl. Ryan Harding with Georgia State Patrol Post 31 said previous texting and driving laws made it too difficult for cops to prove a person was using a phone while driving.
"It's not one of the easiest things to prove," Harding said. "The law has definitely helped us. The texting law was too little and this gives us more power to cut down on distracted driving."
The new law prohibits a driver from even holding a phone.
He said distracted driving is more than just talking on a phone. It can be anything that takes the driver's attention away from the road.
That involves putting on makeup, reaching for a drink or changing a radio station.
Harding said public response has been mostly positive. He has heard little push back from people pulled over for distracted driving.
"They usually just shrug and say, 'You got me,'" he said. "I've noticed a change in drivers. I see less people driving with phones in their hand. Not to say it doesn't happen but I think people are learning."
Harding said it takes time for people to comply with a new law. He compared it to when the mandatory seatbelt laws were first enacted.
"At first people were not happy about the law. Then that moved to reluctance, and now we're at acceptance," Harding said.
Each new law must go through the three levels of compliance, he said.
Georgia State Patrol Post 12 commander agrees with Harding —the law is a good law and long overdue.
Sgt. First Class John VanLandingham, Post 12 commander, said people talking on cell phones and texting caused an increase in Georgia traffic crashes.
"We knew something was causing that," the commander said.
If a passenger dies in a traffic crash, and officials believe the crash resulted from the driver texting or talking on a cell phone, authorities can obtain a search warrant for the driver's cell phone records.
Phone records are also obtained if someone is killed in another vehicle, and cell phone usage of the offending driver is suspected.
VanLandingham said he thinks the hands-free law was needed and puts drivers in the right mindset.
He also thinks the law is working.
"I see no reason for it to be more severe," the commander said, pointing out that future cell phone technology might require a change in the law.
Dalton Police Department Officer David Saylors said when he's out on patrol he sees "a lot more drivers with two hands on the steering wheel.”
Saylors said the law has had an impact but it's too soon to say how big the impact will ultimately be.
"I still see them. They might not have the phone to their ear," he said. "They'll have it down at the bottom of the steering wheel, and when you stop them, they say 'I was looking at my GPS.' Well, that's still a violation of the law. The law says you can't hold your phone, can't support it with any part of your body even if you are at a red light or stop sign.”
Law enforcement officials across the state said these drivers are a danger to themselves and others.
Lt. Michael Cox, who oversees the patrol division of the Moultrie Police Department, said texting while driving is comparable to being drunk or high.
A driver who is not looking at the road, who is reading a text or watching a cat video, is distracted and will have less time to react to changing road conditions.
Cox said he thinks the law will improve safety on the roadways.
“It cuts down on distracted driving,” he said. “It’s making people pay attention to the actual task of driving. We are out, and we are looking.”
State lawmakers are expected to revisit the hands-free law this year, Blackwood said.
Lawmakers may consider restoring a ban on phone use by drivers younger than 18 and cutting a provision that tosses out a ticket if a first-time offender can show a receipt for a hands-free device.
Blackwood said this makes it possible for someone to avoid a penalty by simply buying a device immediately after getting a ticket.
“If that charge is taken off in, let’s say, Tift County and you get caught later in Lowndes County, there’s no record so you could use that receipt or go spend $20 and buy another earpiece and avoid a $150 fine,” Blackwood said. “It’s just not an enforceable kind of thing.”
In addition to Thomas Lynn, SunLight Project team members Jill Nolin, Patti Dozier, Will Woolever, Alan Mauldin, Eve Copeland and Charles Oliver contributed to this article.
By the Numbers
A look at distracted-driving citations in the SunLight Project area.
• Lowndes County Sheriff's Office issued 37 citations. Georgia State Patrol Post 31, which covers Lowndes, Lanier, Brooks and Echols counties, issued 230 citations with substantially higher warnings.
• Thomasville Police Department issued 118 citations and 184 warnings for hands-free cell phone violations.
• GSP Post 12, which covers Thomas, Grady, Mitchell and Colquitt counties, has issued 762 warnings and 56 citations for distracted driving.
• The Tifton Police Department has written 67 citations, and the Tift County Sheriff’s Office has written 65 citations and warnings for distracted driving.
• Moultrie officers have issued 25 written warnings and 15 citations not counting verbal warnings.
• Milledgeville Police Department issued seven tickets.
• Dalton Police Department issued 444 citations. The Whitfield County Sheriff's Office reports it issued 31 citations.
Thomas Lynn is a government and education reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256