Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.
That’s good advice for any driver, but especially in Smyrna, where drivers caught using handheld devices could soon face fines of up to $150 dollars.
Smyrna’s City Council voted Wednesday night to approve the state’s first hands-free driving ordinance. The ordinance, which the city describes as “a temporary and experimental regulation” is scheduled to go into effect April 2 and last for two years, after which the city may decide to extend it. During the first 45 days of that time, police will only hand out warnings to drivers using the devices.
In a nutshell, drivers may not use a cellphone or other electronic device with their hands while operating a vehicle, but mounting the phone to the dashboard and talking on speakerphone or using voice commands to operate a GPS app is allowed.
The vote to ban the devices came down to the wire after Councilman Ron Fennel abstained from voting. He said he personally supports the plan, but would not vote on it because he works for TEAM Georgia, which advocates for road safety measures.
“As reluctant as I am, because of my advocacy all these years and the fact that I do this as a part of my job, I am reluctantly going to recuse myself because I have confidence that the remainder of the team here will vote for it and we’ll be able to pursue it,” Fennel said.
That put the council in a 3-3 tie, with Councilmen Derek Norton, Charles Welch and Doug Stoner in favor and Councilwomen Andrea Bluestein, Maryline Blackburn and Susan Wilkinson opposed.
Bluestein said her opposition stemmed from the idea that such a ban should be statewide.
“This is a very important issue, but one community can’t solve it,” she said. “We don’t need 10 different communities coming up with these ordinances that are just a tad off here or a tad off there. It’s going to be the most confusing mess that you’d ever hope for. The state has got to, we need to put pressure on the state to do their job.”
State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, created the House Study Committee on Distracted Driving, of which he is the chair, during last year’s legislative session. Last month, he released the results of a statewide survey which found 72.4 percent of Georgia Republican voters and 64.5 percent of Georgia Democrat voters say they would support a statewide hands-free driving law, but it is not yet clear whether such a law would be considered or pass in the upcoming legislative session.
In casting the tie-breaking vote, Mayor Max Bacon said he does not trust the state to do the right thing and hopes Smyrna will be an example to them and to other cities.
“Generally speaking, I don’t much like government telling me what to do when it comes to certain things, but if we sit back and wait for the state to take care of things, this issue has been going on for years and years and years, and in my humble opinion, there are too many lobbyists out there supporting candidates that are never going to — it should have been taken care of years ago. … But it’s not likely to happen any time soon.”
Councilman Norton, who sponsored the ordinance, said he got the idea from listening to Carson’s study committee on distracted driving over the summer.
“Just listening to the testimony of injured victims and families that have suffered unimaginable losses, was very compelling,” He said. “It made me look around more when I’m on the road, and I can’t tell you how much I’ve noticed people traveling at high rates of speed while not looking at the road but looking at their phones.”
According to Smyrna city staff, Georgia has seen a 60 percent increase in the number of fatal and serious injury-causing collisions caused by distracted driving from 2012 to 2015.
There is already a law against texting and driving in Georgia, but Norton said this ordinance takes it a step further.
“Georgia law is simply a no-texting law, and law enforcement says it is unenforceable,” he said. “If you pull someone over for texting and they say they were doing something else, they would have to execute a search warrant on their phone in order to give them a ticket, and no law enforcement is willing to do that just to get a ticket.”
Under the Smyrna ordinance, drivers will need to keep their phones out of their hands entirely while operating their vehicles, unless they are on the line with 911, a hospital or another emergency responder.
The ordinance does allow a driver to activate their phone or an application on it as long as it is affixed to the car. That means if your phone is attached to your dashboard, you can touch it once to answer a phone call, hang up a call or open a navigation app, but once the phone or app is activated, you must use voice commands to control it.
The law applies to motorists stopped at red lights or in traffic, but not pulled over on the shoulder or parked in a parking spot.
Norton said April 2 was set as the date for the ordinance to go into effect so the city will be able to monitor the state Legislature and plan accordingly if a statewide hands-free law is passed.