ATLANTA — Driving around the metro area, it’s easy to spot drivers holding phones, dialing, texting and ignoring Georgia’s weak distracted driving law.
We traveled to New York to see how well that state is using its tough hands-free law to crack down on distracted driving.
We joined Suffolk County Highway Patrol officer Rich Seagriff in an unmarked SUV as he looked for drivers with a phone in their hand, a violation of New York’s hands-free law.
“Female driver right there had her right hand on her cell right here and was talking away,” Seagriff said before turning on his siren.
If you get caught without a hands-free device in New York, you’ll face a $200 fine (about $400 after fees) and five points on your license. That’s halfway to suspension.
“You were on your cellphone. (It was) obvious to me. Were you speaking to someone? Were you texting?” Seagriff said.
“Yes, I was speaking to someone,” the driver said.
New York got tough after seeing a major increase in distracted driving accidents. New York officials say the crackdown is working, and tickets are up 840 percent statewide in five years.
“I do know about the law and I do know it’s dangerous,” the driver said. “I picked up my husband’s call and I shouldn’t have.”
The driver was lucky to get off with a warning.
“What I’m going to do is ask you to be super careful. Do not operate a motor vehicle while operating an electronic device. It’s causing a lot of accidents and a lot of injuries,” Seagriff said.
SUCCESS IN NEW YORK
A massive public awareness law warned New York drivers when the law went into effect.
You can see the difference driving in New York -- drivers pay more attention to the road than their phones.
Seagriff said he was visiting family in Georgia when he couldn’t believe how drivers openly violated the texting laws.
“I was in Marietta and Alpharetta, and I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked,” Seagriff said.
Police in New York have to see the phone in hand to pull drivers over. So they use SUVs to look down on drivers. They say despite the tough law, younger drivers raised on texting aren’t getting the message.
“The behavior is far more ingrained (in young people) than (in) older people. They just don’t see the danger,” Seagriff said.
In metro Atlanta, it’s easy to spot people of all ages ignoring our weak laws.
Here is Georgia, penalties for texting are far less than New York. You get a $150 fine and just one point on your license.
We rode along with Milton police, who say they’d like to see tougher laws like ones in New York.
“I think that would definitely help. It might deter some people from committing the violation,” Officer Andrew Noblett said.
Seagriff said the New York law is working and states that adopt hands-free laws will see a difference.
“The law works. It’s going to take a while to get acclimated to it. But believe me, it’s going to save lives,” Seagriff said.
IMPACT IN GEORGIA
Auto insurance rates in Georgia are skyrocketing, and companies blame accidents and injuries caused by distracted driving.
One state legislator says it may be time to look at tougher laws here in Georgia, similar to the ones in New York.
State Rep. Allen Peake said the law he wrote six years ago was the best he could do. Peake said there was simply no appetite for a tough hands-free law.
“There are a lot of my colleagues that don’t want the government involved in anymore intrusion on their private lives,” Peake said.
Peake said he was spotted by a constituent in 2010 texting and driving.
“They looked up the tag from my car and contacted me and said I was a terrible example to the citizens of our state,” Peake said. “They were right.”
After that, Peake fought to get the first distracted driving law passed.
Mandi Sorhan lost her 18-year-old son, Caleb, in a texting crash. The Sorohan family helped lobby for the bill.
“People need to understand that your Facebook status or your Snapchat pictures, those are not nowhere near worth your life,” Sorohan said.
The Sorohan family thinks it’s time for a tougher law.
“I think that’s a very good idea, just because people would start hearing about it and would start hearing about the punishment is so much higher,” Alex Sorohan said.
Peake said he thinks his colleagues may be open to a tougher New York-style law. He may revisit updating his law next session.
“It may be time to take another look at what’s the next step of providing a public safety measure regarding using your phone in your vehicle,” Peake said.
According to police, if you look down for just two seconds at 50 mph, it’s similar to driving half the length of a football field with your eyes closed.
We’ll follow up in January to see if state legislators decide to toughen our distracted driving laws.
Allstate is raising rates as high as 58 percent in Georgia.
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