New law prohibits most phone use while driving, goes into effect July 1

Published 8:29 am Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Starting July 1, Tennessee drivers can receive tickets for having their cell phone on their person, whether making a phone call or checking the time.

The campaign Hands Free Tennessee has spearheaded the bill and its provisions, saying it has partnered with Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development.

The new law makes it illegal to “hold a cellphone or mobile device with any part of their body; write, send, or read any text-based communication; reach for a cellphone or mobile device in a manner that requires the driver to no longer be in a seated driving position or properly restrained by a seat belt; watch a video or movie on a cellphone or mobile device, and record or broadcast video on a cellphone or mobile device,” according to the initiative’s website.

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“Under the old law, the restrictions of using a mobile device was limited to preventing their use for texting only,” Elizabethton Police Captain Christopher Bowers said. “It was difficult to enforce because it was not known if someone was texting versus emailing, placing a call, internet surfing or watching a video on their mobile device.”

He said this ambiguity is resolved under this new, Hands Free law.

“It simplifies the matter by saying a mobile device cannot be used in the driver’s hands at all in a moving vehicle unless for making a call for bona fide emergencies to law enforcement, fire, EMS, 911 or other emergency services,” he said.

Hands Free Tennessee states there were over 24,600 crashes involving a “distracted driver” in the state last year, roughly 63 crashes a day, and 929 of those crashes took place in Carter County.

Those statistics, however, do not specify whether those distracted driving reports were due to a cell phone or other factors, a point of ambiguity critics have pointed out over the past week.

In an editorial for Knox News, George Korda wrote cell phones were not the only cause of distracted driving.

“If distracted driving is the reason, here are additional suggestions of what can be banned to make the roads safer: eating a hamburger, drinking a bottle of water, changing stations on the radio, switching out CDs in your CD player, adjusting an iPod, putting on mascara or other makeup, conversations with a person in the passenger seat, talking to your kids in the back seat,” Korda said.

Bowers said the law does allow for the use of hands-free devices, including headphones or earpieces, and the law itself does allow for the use of GPS services.

The law will go into effect Monday, with a minimum $50 fine for the first offender. Third-time offenders or more will receive $100 fines, double that for violations that occur in school zones or where workers are present.