Ga. cops will soon enforce texting law

Officer must convince judge that driver was texting, not making a call

By Kristi E. Swartz
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — "But, officer, I wasn't texting, I was just calling my girlfriend."

Save it for the judge.

At least, that's likely going to be the case here, authorities say.

Starting Thursday, it will be illegal in Georgia for anyone to read, type or send a text message while driving. And "driving" includes being stopped at red lights or awaiting an arrow in a turn lane. A violation can cost up to $100 for adults.

Adults can use the keypad to dial a phone number. Young drivers with provisional licenses will be prohibited from all cellphone use while driving. If they are caught, the fine is $150.

So, how can authorities be sure if an adult is talking or texting?

Georgia State Patrol spokesman Gordy Wright said, as with any citation, it's going to be up to what troopers observe and say it is a violation. For instance, if they notice a car suddenly changing lanes, weaving in and out of traffic or running off the road, and then discover the driver wasn't intoxicated but was texting.

"It's really going to be a decision of the courts," said Maj. Lane Hagin, commander of the Atlanta Police Department's special operations section.

Hagin said it's up to the police officers to clearly tell the judge what they saw.

"If someone is driving and looking at the phone, and they [the officers] can see their fingers moving ..." Hagin said. "If the officer can clearly tell the judge that the person was holding up the phone instead of having it up by their ear ... I think if that can be articulated, then that will help."

In Georgia, law enforcement officers can stop a driver solely for texting. That person doesn't have to be driving recklessly, Cobb Police spokesman Dana Pierce said.

"The big thing is observing them" when a patrol officer is driving alongside another vehicle, Pierce said.

Officers also expect some level of honesty coming from the driver, he said.

Georgia becomes the latest of nearly 30 states to ban texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. States are using a combination of media outreach, advertising and a model similar to the "click-it-or-ticket" program to enforce the ban, according to a study released Tuesday.

"It's difficult, but it's not impossible" to enforce the law, said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the highway safety group.

Georgia uses social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to send anti-distracted driving messages, according to the study. But it does not work with employers or public and private agencies to help them come up with their own distracted-driving programs.

Adkins said the highway safety association would like the state to beef up its education efforts but expects that will happen with this new texting ban.

Copyright 2010 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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