By Lucinda Leonard
Special to The Press
With the passage of several new laws by Tennessee’s General Assembly that took effect Monday, one such bill is designed to significantly reduce distracted driving.
The new Tennessee cell phone restriction law prohibits a person from physically holding or supporting a wireless device of any kind, or a stand-alone electronic device, while operating a vehicle. The best solution offered to still use one’s cell phone or other smart device while driving is to download a personal assistant application to one’s device and make sure it is Bluetoothed to the vehicle’s speaker system, allowing a completely hands-free device.
Many laws regulate the use of mobile phones by motorists and different states take a different approach. Some affect all drivers and some laws target handheld devices only, while other laws impact both handheld and hands-free devices.
This new law in Tennessee regulates distracted driving, meaning an officer may cite a driver for using a hand-held cell phone without any other traffic offense having taken place. Tennessee is now the 19th state to ban holding a cell phone while driving.
Martin Police Department Assistant Chief Phillip Fuqua told The Press officers and the department don’t make the laws, they enforce them.
He also reported the department held a meeting about the distracted driving law and the police department is refraining from making non-emergency cell phone calls while driving. The goal is for the department to set a good example.
Fuqua acknowledged the hands-free and seatbelt laws are quite different. Under the seatbelt law, when ticketed a person does not receive any points on his record; however, for every distracted driving ticket a person receives, three points are added to his record. Anyone accruing 12 points in a calendar year will face the suspension of his license for 12 months under the distracted driving law.
With every law there is an exemption as with the new distracted driving law. The law factors in one exemption — life threatening or medical emergency — in which a call to 911 can be made.
“This law is a primary stop offense, and time will tell if this can make a difference to reduce the number of crashes and deaths,” Fuqua added.
Tennessee’s hands-free law is not the first restriction on distracted driving. Currently, texting while driving is illegal. A handheld ban in active school zones was implemented in 2017, and all cell phone use is banned for drivers possessing only a learner’s permit. Nearly one-third of drivers talk on the phone daily, according to national statistics.
As of Monday, drivers could face a fine up to $200 for using their cell phones while driving, however, hands-free devices will be allowed, including — dashboard mounts, earpieces, headphone devices or a device worn on a wrist — to conduct a voice-based communication in the vehicle.
A driver’s first violation will result in a $50 fine, but a driver’s second and third offenses or those resulting in an accident, the fine will jump to $100. If the violation occurs in a work zone when workers are present or in a school zone when flashers are on, the fine is $200.
UT Martin Director of Public Safety Scott Robbins said this law will protect a lot of people, especially the youth in the community.
The Tennessee Senate approved the ban by a vote of 23-7 in April. Tennessee ranks No. 1 in distracted-driving deaths. The fatality rate is 7.2 distracted deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles, which is nearly five times the national average of 1.49 fatalities, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration
“With new laws, it’s a wait and see on what kind of impact this law has on people. It takes a while for drivers to change their habits. People don’t like to be told what to do, but when they get a ticket, then that is a good reminder. If people comply, Tennessee stats will improve and this law is in place to protect us,” Weakley County General Sessions Judge Tommy Moore said.
“Set your phones down while driving,” he added.