Texting while driving grace period ends

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Like any modern 16-year-old, Alice Yang relishes swapping text messages with friends. A newly minted driver's license makes her particularly fond of driving as well.

But mixing the two, she says, is an ethical no-no.

"I don't really text while driving. I'm already not the greatest driver," the Duluth resident quipped Friday. "All my friends used to text and drive, and I was like, 'This is dumb. You're going to kill me, and yourself.'"

Yang uses past tense for one simple reason: Georgia's ban on cell phone use by drivers under 18 -- and texting ban for all drivers -- weighs heavy on the minds of the young and licensed, though she and her friends aren't sure how police can possibly enforce the restrictions.

Turns out some police agencies aren't entirely sure, either.

Since the laws took effect July 1, Georgia law enforcement agencies have allowed drivers a grace period where written or verbal warnings are issued instead of $150 tickets and one-point dings on driver's licenses.

That all ends today. But will a bona fide crackdown really begin?

Hard to say. No agency interviewed for this story had formally tracked warnings related to cell phone use in July. Georgia State Patrol spokesman Gordy Wright said drivers seem aware of the texting ban and have either relinquished the habit or become crafty about hiding it.

"People that may have been texting while driving might see a law enforcement vehicle and immediately put (the device) down," Wright said. "Troopers around state are reporting that violations are very slow. Generally, it's difficult to find a violation."

Some red flags on troopers' radar, according to Wright: a driver who is looking down, then back up at the road, repeatedly; weaving; errant eyes.

In Suwanee, patrol commander Capt. Cass Mooney said policing protocol hasn't changed since the laws went active. Not a single citation or written warning for improper cell phone use has been issued, he said.

Suwanee police are waiting for state-level officials to hammer out guidelines before aggressively enforcing the law, Mooney said.

As of now, "it would probably only be something we'd go after if it was a factor in a serious accident, if we had to subpoena court records," he said. "We'd pursue it to that extent."

Another difficulty in enforcement is differentiating between illegal behavior like text messaging and cell phone usage the laws don't restrict, like adult drivers checking voice-mail messages.

"As with any citation, it's going to be up to officers to observe the action and articulate that it is a violation," said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Brian Kelly.

In the fledgling phases of enforcement, Kelly said officers may have to fall back on old-fashioned driver honesty.

"It's going to be a bit cumbersome at first," he said. "(But) if we use the senses we normally use to detect violators, it won't be too difficult."

The push to banish the dangerous driving behavior has been supported by such notable backers as Oprah Winfrey and the United Nations, both having launched campaigns to end cell phone use behind the wheel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that nearly 6,000 people died in crashes involving distracted driving in 2008 alone. The group defines distracted behavior as anything that takes a driver's eyes off the road, hands off the wheel or that causes a general lapse in concentration.

Another 500,000 people are injured by distracted driving yearly, Kelly said.

According to the NHTSA, 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit novice drivers from using electronic communication devices while driving. Nineteen states have banned texting by all drivers, while six others have outlawed cell phone use for any reason behind the wheel.

Jasmina Strikovic of Stone Mountain likes the sound of that.

Strikovic extolled the virtues of the texting ban on Friday, but she isn't sure the laws have discouraged the multi-tasking habits of her 25-year-old son.

"I completely support the law," she said. "I personally would like to see people limited from talking on the phone altogether (while driving), for safety reasons."

Mooney's take on that idea? Don't hold your breath.

The Suwanee captain doesn't foresee cell phone use being banned entirely on Peach State roadways anytime soon, though its within the realm of possibility, he said.

"Laws ebb and flow with the feeling of the legislature," Mooney said. "It just depends on the public outcry as to whether or not (the laws will be more strict). Right now, we're kind of in standby mode."