Hands-Free Law and Others Taking Effect July 1
The legislative session is over and done, and all that’s left to do is obey the new laws, most of which take effect July 1.
While many of this year’s new laws will have little or minor impact on Georgians’ day-to-day lives, there is one big act that could have a drastic effect on highway safety.
Hands-Free Georgia Act
As of July 1, it will be illegal to hold a phone while driving.
The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety’s website has full details and answers to frequently asked questions about the new law, but the gist is:
Don’t hold your phone while driving.
For purposes of the law, driving is defined as any time the vehicle is not lawfully parked. So, no checking Facebook while stopped at a red light or watching cat videos while stuck in traffic.
More specifically, if you are using the phone:
- As a phone, use voice commands to initiate and end calls. The law allows you to interact with your phone using speakerphone, earpiece, wireless headphones, or an electronic watch.
- As a navigational device, attach with a mount.
- For texting, use voice-to-text and text-to-voice features to compose and listen to text messages.
- To listen to music, set the music (or music service) to run before starting your vehicle, then leave it in a mount, console, or other storage area while running.
Ultimately, the aim of the Hands-Free Georgia Act is right there in the name: Your phone should not be in your hands when you’re driving.
There is a general exception to the Hands-Free Georgia Act for using your phone “while reporting a traffic accident, medical emergency, fire, an actual or potential criminal or delinquent act, or road condition which causes an immediate and serious traffic or safety hazard."
Safety is a major concern and the driving force behind the Hands-Free Georgia Act.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says 3,450 people were killed in distracted-driving incidents in 2016. The number includes drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
While the Hands-Free Georgia Act aims to promote safer phone use by drivers, the best course of action is to not use your phone at all when driving. Research by the National Safety Council shows using hands-free devices to talk while driving is still dangerous.
Updates and Amendments to Existing Laws
Every year the Georgia General Assembly tweaks and adjusts existing laws. Here are a few highlights from this year’s session.
New Rules for Schools
- No Tuition for Students Placed in Psychiatric Treatment: HB 853/Act 382 amends the Quality Basic Education Act so that children placed in psychiatric residential treatment facilities pursuant to a physician's order may not be charged tuition.
- Concerning “School Climate”: HB 763/Act 451 gives school attendance committees authority over “school climate.” This means the committees will help promote learning growth, morale, community support, and attendance, “while decreasing student suspensions, expulsions, dropouts, and other negative aspects of the total school environment.” The act also requires the coordinating of school safety plans with local law enforcement and juvenile courts.
- Approved Absences for Children of Active Military: HB 718/Act 332 grants up to 5 excused absences per school year to any student whose parent or legal guardian is currently serving or previously served on active duty, provided the absence is to attend an event related to the parent or guardian’s military service.
- Moving During the School Year? Keep Your School: HB 852/Act 431 allows a student who moves to a new school attendance zone mid-year to complete the year in the same school. The student can’t have chronic disciplinary or attendance issues, and their parent or guardian must take responsibility for getting them to and from school.
Changes to Local Laws
- Update to Fireworks Regulations: HB 419/Act 312 updates the times during which fireworks may be used, clarifies that their use is subject to local noise ordinances and requires fireworks retailers to post a warning notice advising consumers to check local ordinances, use caution, and be considerate to neighbors. Also, the Governor now has the option to ban the use of fireworks in any area of Georgia that is under drought (as defined by a measure of 700 or higher on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index).
- For a full description of fireworks regulations and safety guidelines see our blog post, "Fireworks? Know the Law, Use Caution, and Be Courteous!"
- Ban on Banning Wood: HB 876/Act 466 prohibits local authorities from specifically banning wood as a construction material, provided its use meets all other code requirements.
Affecting Public Safety
- Military Firefighter Training is Acceptable: HB 699/Act 327 lets military firefighter training count as required basic training for firefighters.
- New Color Scheme Option for GSP Cars: HB 809/Act 344 permits the Commissioner of Public Safety to allow the painting of Georgia State Patrol cars in a solid color. (The law previously required a two-tone color scheme. Note: that scheme was voted winner of the “Best Looking Cruiser Contest” sponsored by the American Association of State Troopers.)
- New Board Member: HB 856/Act 383 adds the Commissioner of Community Supervision as an ex officio member of the Board of Public Safety, thereby increasing the size of the board from 15 to 16 members.
- Regulating Perinatal Facilities: HB 909/Act 392 authorizes the Department of Public Health (DPH) to regulate facilities that provide care to newborn children and their mothers. DPH has until December 2019 to develop standards.
- Extra Plate for Gold Star Families: HB 287/Act 307 amends the law pertaining to Gold Star Family license plates to allow 2 (rather than the previously allowed one) free license plates to any eligible family member of U.S. military killed in action.
- Sexual Harassment Awareness for Lobbyists: HB973/Act 493 requires registered lobbyists to acknowledge and accept the Georgia General Assembly Employee Sexual Harassment Policy.
- Leeway to Leave a Lease: HB 834/Act 482 amends the law on residential leasing to allow a renter to terminate a lease with 30 days notice if a civil family violence order or criminal family violence order has been issued.
The General Assembly Voted; Now It’s Your Turn
Most of the time the General Assembly creates a law and that’s it; it applies and we follow it. Other times, however, our lawmakers pass decisions on to the people of Georgia, either as a whole or within our individual communities.
Each of the acts below requires approval by voters before taking effect. In cases where the new law would apply only within a certain municipality, be sure to keep an eye on local government meetings to find out when (or even if) the issue will be placed on an upcoming ballot.
- Earlier Alcohol Sales on Sunday: SB 17/Act 461 — which carried the legislative nickname “the brunch bill” — authorizes local votes to allow sales of alcoholic beverages starting at 11 a.m. on Sundays. (Current law prohibits such sales until 12:30 p.m. on Sundays, in jurisdictions that have opted to allow Sunday sales at all.)
- Land Conservation: HB 332/Act 415, dubbed the “Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act,” calls for a statewide referendum on the November general election ballot. If passed, the referendum would create the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund to support parks, trails, and land conservation, funded by allocation of sales and use tax proceeds from sporting goods stores.
- Taxes for ATL Transit: HB 930/Act 405 allows each of 13 metro Atlanta counties the option to hold a referendum to impose a sales tax to fund additional transit. (The act also has another effect; see below.)
New Governing Bodies
The General Assembly can’t be everywhere and control everything, so it creates authorities, boards, and other intermediate governing bodies to oversee particular areas of law, certain parts of the state, or sometimes both.
A few new ones were created this year.
- Benefitting Veterans: HB 422/Act 313 authorizes the Veterans Service Board to create the Georgia Veterans Service Foundation, Inc. The foundation would be a 501(c)(3) non-profit to solicit and collect funds to benefit Georgia's veterans.
- In related action, SR 484 created the Senate Study Committee on Creating a Lottery Game to Benefit Veterans. Sen. Ed Harbison will chair the 5-person committee, which is tasked to ”look at the possibility of creating one or more games within the Georgia Lottery for the benefit of Georgia’s military veterans.” The committee has until December 1, 2018 to report its findings.
- ATL Transit: HB 930/Act 405 creates the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority to oversee transit development.
- Rural Prosperity: HB 951/Act 300 creates the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation and the Georgia Rural Development Council. The center will be located within a to-be-determined University System of Georgia institution, and will assume the business and responsibilities of the Centers of Innovation Agribusiness. The Department of Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture will collaborate with the center.
- Employment for Individuals with Disabilities: HB 931/Act 455 creates the Employment First Georgia Council to help create an “Employment First Policy” as it relates to state-funded employment services provided to people with disabilities. The council of 14 will bring together leaders and experts in both the public and private sector, including people who experience disabilities first-hand.