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New laws for drivers take effect

COVINGTON -- New laws aimed at protecting Georgia drivers go into effect today.

Texting is now prohibited while operating a motor vehicle, and the use of any electronic devices, whether making a phone call or texting, by anyone under age 18 is prohibited. Also, drivers of pickup trucks will now be required to wear seat belts.

While local and state law enforcement officials say the intent of these laws is good, they acknowledge enforcement could be difficult.

Covington Police Department Lt. Wendell Wagstaff said it may be hard to determine if someone is texting versus making a phone call. The only way to verify if a driver is under 18 will be to pull them over and look at their driver's license, he said.

"If they're under 18, it's easy. If they're over 18, you start getting into sticky situations," he said.

At that point, determining whether a driver is texting or making a phone call will be challenging, because, according to Maj. Mark McDonough, commanding officer of the Georgia State Patrol, law officers cannot look at the content on a person's cell phone unless the person waives his or her Fourth Amendment right. Without the waiver, officers are required to obtain a search warrant.

Wagstaff said officers will have to be observant in determining when to initiate a stop. If they follow someone who is continually looking down for several miles, for example, they'd have good reason to suspect texting.

Cpl. Anthony Washington with the Newton County Sheriff's Office said stops will be initiated based on observation, and agreed that determining what the driver was actually doing could be difficult.

"It may be something that goes to court and a judge may have to decide. We have to respect the right of the driver, as well. We want to make sure we don't assume anything," he said. "It's going to have to be determined when the stop is made; it's leaving it up to the deputy to decide if a violation has occurred."

State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, said legislators realize enforcement of the law could be tricky. He said it will be revisited during next year's legislative session. Legislators will consider then whether to require hands-free devices for all residents, he said.

The law requiring pickup truck drivers to buckle up seems simple enough, except that it aims to protect farmers by exempting people who are traveling to a feed or fertilizer store or hauling hay, as well as moving equipment from field to field.

Holt said the intent was to protect "true farmers."

"We're dealing with folks in the country. If somebody in the city of Atlanta says they're driving to a feed store, it doesn't walk. In the country there's lower traffic density and the likelihood of a dangerous situation is much reduced," he said. "True farmers are more sedate and careful drivers."

But again, law enforcement will be in some cases relying upon the word of drivers to determine whether a violation has occurred.

"It's going to be a challenge to enforce something that could have been more clear cut," Wagstaff said.

"Basically, with both (laws), we're going to have to take the word of the public," Washington said.

Washington added he hopes the public will realize whatever laws are on the books -- wearing a seat belt and refraining from texting or dialing while driving -- are good ways to protect yourself and others.

"It's very important each and every driver understand safety should be a personal responsibility," he said. "With texting, not only should the person concern themselves with their safety, but the safety of others. Once you take your eyes off the road, at a high rate or minimum rate of speed, you can endanger the driving public along with yourself and the occupants of your vehicle."

GSP Commander McDonough said he's instructed his troopers to wait until Aug. 1 before they start strict enforcement of the new laws.

"We've done so because one of the most important things you can do in law enforcement is education," McDonough said during a press conference earlier this week. "Until Aug. 1, our troopers will act upon violations of these two laws, but they'll be very compassionate in their enforcement. A lot of warnings will be written between now and Aug. 1 and that gives troopers the opportunity to talk to the citizens and answer their questions, so even the enforcement action will be an action of education."

Troopers will write citations when an accident is the result of a texting violation or if a pickup truck is involved in an accident where there is a seat belt violation, McDonough said.