On May 2, 2018, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed the “Hands-Free Georgia Act” (House Bill 673) into law. The Act took effect on July 1, 2018 and aims to reduce the number of motor vehicle accidents and fatalities caused by distracted drivers. The new law makes it illegal for drivers to “physically hold or support, with any part of his or her body,” a wireless, electronic telecommunications device while driving, even while stopped at a traffic light. You must be “lawfully parked” off or beside the road in an area open to parking in order to hold your electronic device. Drivers must now use an earpiece or wireless device, including Bluetooth technology or a voice-based smart watch. However, there are a few exceptions. Drivers are permitted to hold a phone to report a traffic accident, a medical emergency, fire, criminal or delinquent activity or a hazardous condition. Also exempt are people who are performing official duties such as police, firefighters, emergency, medical personnel, ambulance drivers, other first responders and utility employees or contractors responding to a utility emergency. A link to the complete law can be found at www.gahighwaysafety.org.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT FOR EMPLOYERS?
Employees often drive during the course and scope of their employment. Therefore, it is important to understand the possible impact on employers when their employees use their electronic devices while driving for business. Even employers that do not provide company cars or employ drivers may be exposed to liability if an employee is on the phone for company business and gets into an accident. In Hunter v. Modern Continental Construction Company, Inc., the Georgia Court of Appeals found that evidence showing that the employee may have been on his cell phone regarding company business when a traffic accident occurred was sufficient to defeat the employer’s motion for summary judgment. Because an employer can face potential claims of liability if its employee drives on company business and causes an accident while violating the new cell phone law, it is important for employers to take proactive steps to emphasize the importance of compliance with this new law.
WHAT DO WE RECOMMEND?
Employers should ensure that employees who use a cell phone or other electronic device while driving in Georgia understand the new statute and have the proper hands-free equipment in their personal or company-provided vehicle. Employers who do not have an employee handbook with a comprehensive, clear cell phone policy or provision prohibiting the use of hand-held devices while driving should consider including one. Current cell phone or safety policies already in place should be reviewed and updated to ensure compliance with the new statute.
Georgia is one of the few states that have banned hand-held phone use for all drivers. The National Conference of State Legislatures closely monitors state legislation related to cell phone use in the car and offers a 50-state chart of cell phone use and texting while driving laws here.