Co-authored by Chas Whitehead1
If your company has employees who drive on the job in Georgia, significant changes to Georgia law go into effect on July 1, 2018. Key changes include (1) restricting drivers from physically holding or otherwise supporting their devices while driving unless it is a wearable voice-based communication device (such as a Bluetooth earpiece or smartwatch), and (2) a broadening of the definition of "wireless telecommunications device" to include additional internet and data streaming activities on smart phones.
Although writing, sending, and reading text-based communications while driving was illegal before the new law, there are now additional limitations on drivers. Employers should ensure that their employee guidance materials are compliant.
1. HOLDING THE PHONE
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal recently signed HB 673, also known as "The Hands-Free Georgia Act" (find the updated law HERE). This law applies to all drivers in Georgia except emergency responders. Most notably, the new law restricts drivers from physically holding or otherwise supporting their devices while driving unless it is a wearable voice-based communication device (such as a Bluetooth earpiece or smartwatch). Instead, a driver's devices must rest on something other than the driver, such as a seat or in a phone mount. As always, the law prohibits drivers from doing anything that impairs their ability to drive safely, including reaching for their phone, leaving the seated position, and watching videos or movies.
The law does allow for phone calls, despite a driver being unable to hold their phone. Drivers may utilize hands-free technology including Bluetooth and a phone's built-in speaker mode. In fact, drivers may even send text messages if they use speech-to-text technology.
Those driving commercial vehicles are subject to further limitation; they may only use one button to begin or end a voice-based communication. There is no limitation for non-commercial vehicle drivers. It is worth noting that contacting the authorities regarding an emergency is still acceptable under the new law.
2. SMART PHONES AND STREAMING ACTIVITIES.
One oddity of the new law is that drivers are restricted from sending Internet Data, but may use their phone or another device for offline activities. In other words, drivers may use their phone to begin playing music, while driving, but only if the device stores the music offline. However, drivers may not make inputs to a radio-app or streaming service, which requires internet, to begin playing music. To abide by the law, drivers should avoid using these services entirely or start them while legally parked (stopped at a red-light or stop-sign does not count). Of course, the law does allow a driver to operate their car radio and navigation devices.
Employers should take note of the changes and ensure that employee guidelines comply with the new law. Given the number of changes to the law, the potential for non-conformity is substantial. Reviewing and revising company policy will not only protect the safety of employees but might also limit business's exposure to liability.
1. Chas Whitehead is a third-year law student at Mercer University School of Law.
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