July 1 is an important date every year, as that is the date new laws passed by the Georgia General Assembly earlier in the year (and not vetoed by the Governor) become effective, if another effective date is not specified in the particular law. About this time every year, when the General Assembly has done something that affects the laws applicable to insurance or insurance agencies and agents, I try to give my readers a heads up. This year, arguably, the most important change to those laws was done by the Georgia Insurance Commissioners Office in January when it adopted a new regulation requiring that employees of PEO organizations who perform any duties that only an insurance agent can perform must obtain an insurance agent’s license (click here for my post on that regulation). The General Assembly did pass a couple of laws that will impact insurance agencies and agents in different ways, one of which has gotten a lot of attention and one of which has not. The former will be addressed in this post and the latter, which does not take effect until January 1, 2019, will be addressed in a later post.
DISTRACTED DRIVING LAW
The one that has gotten a lot of attention is what is commonly referred to as the “distracted driving law”, but whose formal title is the “Hands-Free Georgia Act.” As of July 1, this law will prohibit the driver of a motor vehicle from holding or supporting “with any part of his or her body” a cell phone or other “wireless telecommunications device” unless the motor vehicle is “lawfully parked” or the driver is “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.” It also continues the prohibition on using such devices to text while driving that was first enacted in 2010 and prohibits other types of activities involving such devices that should be obvious to drivers they should not do (e.g., watching a video or movie). The basic do’s and don’ts of this new law can be found here.
As noted in my last post, the General Assembly hoped this new law will help reduce the increasing number of accidents due to distracted driving and thereby, slow down the significant increases in premiums for motor vehicle insurance that have occurred in the past few years in Georgia. The impending effective date of this new law is an opportunity for insurance agencies and agents to contact their customers about its requirements and remind those customers of the products and other services they provide. Given the extensive coverage of this law in the media, an agency or agent may be wondering what they can add. There is one little known aspect of this new law that will undoubtedly be helpful to at least some of their customers. First time offenders who are given a ticket for holding a “wireless telecommunications device” can avoid having to pay the $50 fine and having one point assessed against their driver’s license if they prove to the court they have obtained a device that will permit them to comply with that part of the law in the future.
AGENCY LIABILITY EXPOSURE
The other aspect of the impending prohibition on holding a “wireless telecommunications device” that should be of interest to insurance agencies is that now more than ever they need to have in place a policy that either prohibits their agents and other employees from any use of such devices while driving or at least, contains the prohibitions found in the new law. More importantly, they need to enforce that policy without exception. The fact that it is against the law for a driver to hold such a device while driving will not protect the agency from liability in the event there is an accident involving an employee who was violating the law at the time of the accident, if it can be shown that the agency had no clearly expressed policy about that subject and even worse was aware of such conduct by its employees and did nothing to stop it. For an explanation of how this can be, click here.