ATLANTA — Don't touch that screen!
Starting July 1, Georgia is joining more than a dozen other states in banning hands-on cellphone use while driving.
Under the "Hands-Free Georgia Act," drivers may not hold a phone with their hands or use any part of their body to support the device. They also may not use headphones, although they will be allowed to talk on the phone using a speaker, ear piece and hands-free Bluetooth connections.
Georgia joins 16 other states and Washington, D.C., in banning hand-held cellphone use while driving, an action prompted here, in part, by a dubious record: The state has had the
highest increase in auto insurance rates since 2011. The bill was sponsored by Republican Rep. John Carson of Marietta, who chaired a legislative study commission on the issue.
Lawmakers were also spurred to action by a rising number of fatalities. The Georgia Department of Transportation estimates that 1,545 lives were lost due to distracted driving, according to Governor's Office of Highway Safety spokesman Robert Hydrick.
"We've seen traffic deaths jump over 30 percent in two years," Hydrick said. "This measure does save lives."
States that have adopted hands-free driving policies have seen a decline in motor vehicle accidents by an average of 16 percent over a two-year period, the U.S. Department of Transportation says on its website. Approximately 660,000 drivers use their phones while driving during daylight hours, the Department says.
In Georgia, a first conviction for using a mobile phone while driving carries a fine of $50 and one point on the driver's license. The second conviction would cost $100 and add two points to the license. The third and subsequent convictions would have a fine of $150 and add three points to the license.
Exceptions include reporting a crash or emergency. Utility workers and first responders are also exempt from the law.
Law enforcement officers have the option to issue warnings as a way to educate drivers on the law. This will be up to the discretion of the officer and will be determined on a case-by-case basis. There is no grace period.
"I think the enforcement of this law will be different amongst different agencies as well as different law enforcement officers," said Paulding County Sheriff's Office spokesman Ashley Henson. "I think the key is education and to make sure that our citizens know what the law states and what is expected of them."
Henson said law enforcement agencies and news outlets have been working to inform the public, but some drivers will likely still get caught.
"Unfortunately some individuals will get citations, but the ultimate goal is to stop distracted driving," Henson said.
So what will and won't be allowed in Georgia?
Drivers will be allowed to stream music from their cellphones — but not to activate or change music while driving — unless they can do so without touching the phone, such as through voice command. Drivers also may not play music accompanied by video — even if they are not watching the video. Any kind of video chatting is also prohibited, as is recording or broadcasting video.
Georgia drivers are not required to purchase Bluetooth or hands-free devices for their cars, but are encouraged to, Hydrick said. Bluetooth enables drivers to use voice command to play music, send messages and answer phone calls.
Phone mounts that allow drivers to see GPS or incoming calls on their phones without actually touching them will also be allowed.