STATESBORO — For the families of five Georgia Southern University students killed in a 2015 crash on Interstate 16, Gov. Nathan Deal hopes his signing into law of the Hands-Free Georgia Act will offer some solace that the new law may help prevent the grief they suffered from befalling other families.
Deal flew into the Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport Wednesday afternoon as part of a day-long trip around all parts of Georgia where he signed the $26.2 billion fiscal 2019 state budget at all his stops.
But Deal wanted to come to Statesboro to sign House Bill 673 — the Hands-Free Georgia Act — because of the devastating effects of the April 22, 2015, crash that left five Georgia Southern nursing students dead and a university and community in shock.
“Here is the home of the five young women who were headed to Savannah about ready to begin a career of helping others, when the potential of their lives was suddenly taken away,” Deal said, his voice breaking with emotion. “We know this new law will not mend your broken hearts. Hopefully, it will prevent the same kind of suffering by other families.”
The Hands-Free Georgia Act is meant to crack down on distracted driving. It requires drivers to use hands-free technology when using cellphones and other electronic devices while driving.
The bill Deal signed prohibits:
• Holding or supporting, with any part of the body, a wireless telecommunications device or stand-alone electronic device (for example, a cell phone).
• Writing, sending or reading any text-based communication, including a text message, instant message, e-mail or internet data while holding your device.
* Reaching for a device if it means you’re no longer in a seated, driving position or properly restrained by a seat belt.
* Watching a video or movie other than watching data related to the navigation of your vehicle (i.e., your mapping app or GPS screen).
* Recording a video.
The law allows:
* Speaking or texting while using hands-free technology.
* Using a GPS system or mapping app.
* Using radios, CB radios, CB radio hybrids, commercial two-way radios, subscription-based emergency communication devices, prescribed medical devices, amateur or ham radios and “in-vehicle security, navigation or remote diagnostics” systems.
* There are circumstances where you can handle an electronic device while driving: reporting a traffic accident, medical emergency, fire, a crime or delinquent act or a hazardous road condition. You can also use your hands if you’re lawfully parked (not at a stoplight — “lawfully” means off or beside the road in an area open to parking).
* Some people are exempt from the hands-free requirement if they’re performing official duties: police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, ambulance drivers, other first responders and utility employees or contractors responding to a utility emergency.
In attendance Wednesday at the airport were family members of Caitlyn Nicole Baggett of Millen, Emily Elizabeth Clark of Powder Springs, Abbie Lorene DeLoach of Savannah, Morgan Bass of Leesburg and Catherine “McKay” Pittman of Alpharetta, who all died in the 2015 tragedy.
Rep. John Carson of Marietta sponsored the bill and he, too, spoke to the families.
“The unimaginable tragedy of losing a child or a loved one or a spouse is a fear all of us live with,” Carson said. “But you have to live with that horror. And make no mistake, this is a statewide and nationwide issue. This bill may save other families from the terrible grief that struck all of you.”
As the bill was crafted, Carson said the study committee also found that of the 15 states that have similar hands-free legislation, 13 saw a 16-percent average decrease in traffic fatalities within two years of passing legislation. In Georgia, he said, that would translate to saving approximately 250 lives per year.
Family members of the nursing students gathered behind Gov. Deal as he signed the hands-free bill, which will become law on July 1.
“A cellphone does not have any use when your attention should be on the road,” Deal said. “Today is the day in Georgia that we say no more. That we save some lives.”