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The Hands-Free Georgia Act became effective July 1, 2018. While Georgia previously had laws against distracted driving and texting while driving, this law increased the restrictions regarding the use of certain devices while operating motor vehicles and increased the potential punishments for those violations. The new law has additional specific prohibitions for commercial vehicle drivers, but this article focuses on impacts of the law on non-commercial drivers while driving a motor vehicle on the public roadways of Georgia.
The first part of understanding the law is understanding what devices are included and excluded. The law uses the phrases “stand-alone electronic device” and “wireless telecommunication device” throughout its prohibitions. The law defines a“stand-alone electronic device” as “a device other than a wireless telecommunications device which stores audio or video data files to be retrieved on demand by a user.”
It defines a “‘wireless telecommunications device” as “a cellular telephone, a portable telephone, a text-messaging device, a personal digital assistant, a stand-alone computer, a global positioning system receiver, or substantially similar portable wireless device that is used to initiate or receive communication, information, or data.” However, the law excludes “a radio, citizens band radio, citizens band radio hybrid, commercial two-way radio communication device or its functional equivalent, subscription based emergency communication device, prescribed medical device, amateur or ham radio device, or in-vehicle security, navigation, or remote diagnostics system” from the definition of a “wireless telecommunication device.”
The next part of understanding the law is understanding what it does and does not allow. The law makes it illegal to physically hold or support any of the devices outlined above with any part of the driver’s body. However, there are exclusions to the wireless telecommunication device provision: when the driver uses an earpiece, a headphone device, or a device worn on a wrist. To meet this exclusion, these devices must be used to conduct a voice based communication. It is important to note that a different law makes it illegal to wear headsets or headphones that would impair a driver’s hearing ability, unless they are for communication purposes. This means a driver is violating the law if they are wearing headphones to listen to music.
The law also makes writing, reading, or sending any text based communication, including text messages, e-mails, instant messages, or internet data on either of the devices defined above illegal. The two exceptions to this provision are voice based communication that is converted by the device to be sent as a message in written form, and the use of such a device for navigation and GPS purposes.
A driver recording and watching videos is addressed in the law. Drivers are prohibited from watching a video or movie on these devices, unless they are watching data related to the navigation of the vehicle. It is also illegal for a driver to record or broadcast a video on these devices while driving. An exception exists to this law for “electronic devices used for the sole purpose of continuously recording or broadcasting video within or outside of the motor vehicle,” such as dash cams.
There are a few exceptions to the laws in the Hands-Free Georgia Act. A driver is not violating the law if a driver is using the device to report “a traffic accident, medical emergency, fire,” a crime, “or road condition which causes an immediate and serious traffic or safety hazard.” You can also use these devices while a vehicle is lawfully parked.
The penalties for violating these laws are measured within a 24 month period, from conviction date to conviction date. For a first conviction, the maximum fine is $50 and 1 point will be assessed on the individual’s driver’s license. Upon a second conviction within the 24 months, the maximum fine increases to $100 and 2 points are assessed against the individual’s driver’s license. For a third or subsequent conviction within a 24 month period, the maximum fine is $150 and 3 points are assessed against the individual’s driver’s license for each conviction.
While many social media posts have referenced a grace period after July 1, 2018, for the law, none exists outside of an individual officer or agency’s discretion. What the law does allow for is a once in a lifetime opportunity to avoid a conviction for the offense of holding or supporting one of these devices with any part of the body. The law says that “[a]ny person appearing before a court for a first charge of” physically holding or supporting one of these devices “who produces in court a device or proof of purchase of such device that would allow such person to comply with such paragraph in the future shall not be guilty of such offense.” The person will also be required to affirm that they have not previously done this in another court. It should also be noted that this one opportunity is not available for any of the other prohibited activities except holding or supporting the device with a part of the driver’s body.
Drivers should know that this act did not change Georgia’s requirement that adriver “exercise due care in operating a motor vehicle on the highways of this state and shall not engage in any actions which shall distract such driver from the safe operation of such vehicle.” Drivers should remember to always drive safely and to avoid taking any action that can distract them from operating a motor vehicle.