ATLANTA — Despite widespread agreement among police, highway safety experts and elected officials that distracted driving is dangerous and should be policed forcefully, Channel 2 Action News has learned that Georgia’s best known traffic enforcement agency is giving distracted drivers a lot of breaks.
Encouraged by then-Gov. Nathan Deal, the legislature passed a law in 2018 that made it illegal even to touch a cellphone while driving—with a couple of minor exceptions. Now, there’s a move to close a loophole that essentially gives violators a free pass on the first offense. To escape a fine, violators only need to present a judge with an affidavit showing that they have purchased a hands-free device.
State Rep. John Carson (R-Cobb County) led the push for the law in 2018. At the time, he told Channel 2, “You’re not just putting your life in danger. You’re putting other drivers and other Georgians at risk on our roads.”
When he signed the bill into law that year, Deal cited the goal: “I think it’s obviously intended to have a very positive effect, to keep unnecessary crashes and unnecessary deaths from occurring because of distracted driving.”
As soon as the law took effect July 1, 2018, the Georgia State Patrol announced it had issued 179 citations for distracted driving within the first five days. Perhaps a better clue to what would follow was in a second number from GSP for those five days: Troopers issued 795 warnings, nearly 4.5 warnings for every citation that required a driver to go to court.
Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher examined GSP’s 2020 summary of activities and found that troopers made more than 45,000 stops for seatbelt violations last year, and gave 63% of those drivers a citation—not a warning.
Troopers made a little more than 7,400 stops involving child restraint violations. Of those drivers, 62% got a citation.
In contrast, of the 67,360 stops involving distracted driving in 2020, only 36% of the drivers were ticketed. The other 64% got a warning.
That is a substantially lower percentage of citations than for either of the other violations listed above—and lower than speeding, for which 51% of drivers suspected were given a citation instead of a warning.
Georgia State Patrol spokesman Lt. Mark Riley emailed, “One of the Department of Public Safety’s core values is compassion. Each trooper and officer uses their own discretion during their interactions with the public ... A traffic stop or accident is a unique opportunity to educate and explain the dangers of certain driving behaviors.”
Riley said the goal of all GSP policies is to reduce serious accidents and injuries and deaths on Georgia roads. Fatalities declined slightly from 2018 to 2019, but there were a record number of deaths in 2020.
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