Both houses of the General Assembly have passed a bill that will allow only hands-free usage of a mobile telephone or personal digital assistant on any road or highway in the state of Tennessee.
HB 0165 sponsored by Representative John Holsclaw (R-Elizabethton) and SB 0173 sponsored by Senator Swann (R-Maryville) will go into effect on July 1, 2019.
Current law prohibits a driver from talking on a hand-held mobile device while the vehicle is in motion in a school zone when the warning flashers are in operation.
A violation under current law is a non-moving traffic violation, with no points added to a driver’s record for the Class C misdemeanor punishable only by a fine of up to $50.00 plus court costs not to exceed $10.
In addition, under current law it is considered a delinquent act for anyone under the age of 18 to talk on a mobile phone while operating a motor vehicle equipped with a hands-free device on any road or highway in Tennessee.
The new law defines ‘hands-free’ and extends the requirement to be ‘hands-free’ to all roads and highways in Tennessee.
Activities prohibited with a wireless telecommunications device in the new law while operating a motor vehicle on any road or highway in the state includes:
- physically holding or supporting with any part of a person’s body
- writing, sending or reading any text-based communications including but not limited to text messages, instant messages, email or internet data
- reaching for a device in a manner that requires the driver to no longer be in a seated driving position or properly restrained by a safety belt
- watching a video or movie
- recording or broadcasting video
A driver 18 years or older can use an earpiece, headphone device or a device worn on a wrist to conduct voice-based communication and may use one button on a wireless telecommunications device to initiate or terminate a voice communication.
A driver’s hand may be used to activate or deactivate a feature with one swipe or tap of the driver’s finger, if the wireless telecommunications device is mounted on the vehicle’s windshield, dashboard or center console in a manger that does not hinder the driver’s view of the road.
The motion must not activate a camera, video, gaming features or functions for viewing, recording, amusement or other non-navigational functions, except if they are related to the transportation of persons or property for compensation or payment of a fee.
Exempted from the law are law enforcement personnel, campus police and public safety officers, emergency medical responders, emergency medical agency officers, persons communicating with emergency services agencies in a bona fide emergency, employees or contractors of public utility service providers during the course of their duties as well as persons stopped or parked in their vehicles.
The new law creates a moving traffic violation, which is subject to three points on a driver’s license for each violation in addition to the $50 fine and $10 in court costs.
A first-time offender may attend and complete a driver education course in lieu of any fine imposed.
In the case of a third or subsequent offense by a driver, or if the violation results in an accident, the fine increases to $100. If a violation occurs in a work zone with Department of Transportation or construction workers present or in a marked school zone when warning flashers are in operation, the fine increases to $200.
The bill was presented on the House floor on April 17, by its sponsor Representative Holscaw, who was joined by several of the co-sponsors, including Representatives Bob Freeman, Ron Gant, Curtis Halford, Patsy Hazelwood, Jason Powell, Johnny Shaw and Rick Tillis.
Holsclaw said that as legislators they try very hard to make Tennessee number one in everything that they do, and that they’ve done a phenomenal job of that.
“However, we’re number one in the statistics that bothers me greatly,” Holsclaw went on. “Tennessee ranks number one in death fatalities due to distracted driving, and that’s a major concern of mine. It costs many lives. Also, that’s five times higher than the national average.”
Over the next 45 minutes, about 20 lawmakers either asked questions or spoke on the proposed legislation – both for and against – although speakers about two to one were against the measure.
Holsclaw maintained that the state of Georgia implemented the law last year, which he modeled his bill after, and they have seen a 41 percent in distracted driving incidents. He added that not only was there a reduction in the accidents, which speaks to the effectiveness of the bill, but their insurance also started to lower.
Near the conclusion, though, Holsclaw relayed that he didn’t care about costs or points, he just wanted to save lives.
The House bill passed with three points to spare with 53 Ayes, 38 Nays and 4 Present and Not Voting.
Representatives voting Aye were: Charlie Baum (R-Murfreesboro), Bill Beck (D-Nashville), Rush Bricken (R-Tullahoma), Karen Camper (D-Memphis), Dale Carr (R-Sevierville), Jesse Chism (D-Memphis), John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville), Jim Coley (R-Bartlett), Michael Curcio (R-Dickson), John DeBerry (D-Memphis), Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville), Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), Bob Freeman (D-Nashville), Ron Gant (R-Rossville), Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville), Curtis Halford (R-Dyer), Mark Hall (R-Cleveland), Kirk Haston (R-Lobelville), Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain), Esther Helton (R-East Ridge), Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville), Jason Hodges D-Clarksville), John Holsclaw (R-Elizabethton), Dan Howell (R-Georgetown), Darren Jernigan (D-Nashville), Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville), Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), Doc Kumar (R-Springfield), William Lamberth (R-Portland), Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington), Mary Littleton (R-Dickson), Harold Love (D-Nashville), Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), Jerome Moon (R-Maryville), Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin), Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis), Jason Potts (D-Nashville), Jason Powell (D-Nashville), Bob Ramsey (R-Maryville), Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station), Johnny Shaw (D-Bolivar), Paul Sherrell (R-Sparta), Robin Smith (R-Hixson), Rick Staples (D-Knoxville), Mike Stewart (D-Nashville), Dwayne Thompson (D-Cordova), Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg), Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster), Mark White (R-Memphis), Sam Whitson (R-Franklin), Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville), Dave Wright (R-Corryton), Mr. Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin)
Representatives voting No were: David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), Kent Calfee (R-Kingston), Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah), Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka), Mark Cochran (R-Englewood), Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis), John Crawford (R-Kingsport), Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski), Rick Eldridge (R-Morristown) Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville), Bruce Griffey (R-Paris), Yusuf Hakeem (D-Chattanooga), G. A. Hardaway (D-Memphis), David Hawk (R-Greeneville), Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough), Timothy Hill (R-Blountville), Andy Holt (R-Dresden), Bud Hulsey (R-Kingsport), Chris Hurt (R-Halls), Kelly Keisling (R-Byrdstown), Justin Lafferty (R-Knoxville), Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet), Larry Miller (D-Memphis), Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville), Jay Reedy (R-Erin), Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro), Iris Rudder (R-Winchester), Lowell Russell (R-Vonore), Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna), Brian Terry (R-Murfreesboro), Chris Todd (R-Madison County), Joe Towns (D-Memphis), Ron Travis (R-Dayton), Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough), Kevin Vaughan (R-part of Shelby County), John Mark Windle (D-Livingston), Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville)
Representatives Present and Not Voting were: London Lamar (D-Memphis), Dennis Powers (R-Jacksboro), John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge), Bill Sanderson (R-Kenton)
The Senate version of the bill wasn’t taken up until April 30, and Senators rising to speak on the bill were more equally divided in their opposition or support for the legislation.
In the end, the Senate vote resulted in 23 Ayes and 7 Nays and 1 Present and Not Voting.
Senators voting Aye were: Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville), Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville), Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Sara Kyle (D-Memphis), Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), Bill Powers (R-Clarksville), Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro), Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis), Paul Rose (R-Tipton and Shelby County), Art Swann (R-Maryville), Bo Watson (R-Hixson), Ken Yager (R-Kingston), Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville), Mr. Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge)
Senators voting No were: Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), Steve Southerland (R-Morristown), John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), Dawn White (R-Murfeesboro)
Senators Present and Not Voting were: Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City)
The bill also directs Tennessee Department of Transportation to utilize the overhead electronic informational displays located throughout the estate to provide periodic messages to the motoring public as to the new law.
Additionally, the state Department of Safety is directed to include distracted driving as part of the instructional information used in driver education training.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Tennessee joins at least 15 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, that had a hands-free law in place as of 2017 plus Georgia that passed the law last year.
Further information about the bill can be found here.
The full text of the amendment that “makes the bill” can be read here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.