Will Georgia require drivers to use hands-free phone technology?

A driver was killed when his car crashed into a MARTA bus Oct. 21 in southwest Atlanta. Statistics from the Georgia Department of Transportation show 1,561 people died on Georgia roads last year. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

A legislative committee has begun a months-long review of options to stem a slew of deaths caused by distracted driving on Georgia’s highways.

One option: Legislation requiring motorists to use hands-free technology if they use a cell phone while driving.

That was an early favorite of some state officials and safety advocates as the House Study Committee on Distracted Driving held its first meeting at the Capitol Monday. The committee heard from several experts about the toll distracted driving has taken on Peach State highways.

Highway fatalities rose by a third from 2014 to 2016, when 1,561 people died. So far this year, 961 people have died.

Though it’s difficult to know for sure how many of those deaths were caused by people who were fiddling with their phones or otherwise distracted, researchers estimated that 10 percent of fatal car crashes are attributable to distracted driving, according to Robert Hartwig, co-director of the Center for Risk and Uncertainty Management at the University of South Carolina.

Georgia already prohibits anyone under 18 with a learner’s permit from using wireless devices while driving and prohibits adults from texting while driving. Some say the logical next step would be requiring hands-free phone use for everyone.

Capt. Derick Durden of the Georgia State Patrol said enforcing the texting ban can be difficult because it requires officers to interpret whether a driver is texting or merely dialing their phone, which is permitted under current law. Durden said a hands-free law would eliminate the ambiguity and make it easier to crack down on distracted driving.

“Hands-free is not a cure-all,” added Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “But it makes the law more enforceable.”

Such legislation has gained little traction in previous legislative sessions. And Hartwig said research so far shows the use of hands-free devices helps, but not as much as hoped.

State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the study committee’s chairman, was not ready to endorse such a bill. But Carson said “all options are on the table.” And he said distracted driving is a serious problem that will require some change in behavior by Georgia drivers.

The study committee will meet several more times around the state this fall. Its next meeting will be Sept. 25 in Warner Robbins.

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