Beginning July 1st, it will be illegal for Tennessee residents to have a phone in their hands while driving. Tennessee joins every other state in the union, except Arizona and Montana, in instituting some sort of regulation on cell phone use while driving.
Many states specifically ban texting; others ban talking on a hand-held phone. The new Tennessee law is pretty stringent. In addition to prohibiting texting and talking on a hand-held phone, it also bans physically holding or supporting a device with any part of the body, reaching for a wireless device that requires the driver to move from a seated position or undo their seatbelt, watching a video or movie while driving, or recording or broadcasting.
In other words, you can't hold your phone and drive. Period.
This kind of legislation, in Tennessee and elsewhere, is designed to cope with the increasing number of "distracted driving" accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released statistics showing that nine people a day are killed in distracted driving incidents in the United States. An additional 1,000 or so are injured in crashes attributable to distracted driving, the CDC says.
The insurance industry also keeps tabs on where distracted driving incidents occur around the country. Guess which state has the highest number of distracted driving accidents. Why, it's our own beloved Volunteer State, which had around 25,000 distracted driving incidents in 2018. Now, guess which county in the worst distracted driving state in the union is the worst offender. If you said "Shelby," you're a winner, chicken dinner. We Shelby Countians racked up 40 percent of the total increase in distracted driving incidents in Tennessee over the last nine years, accounting for 27 percent of the total. So, yeah, we Tennesseans really like using our phones while driving, it seems.
But there's another dimension to this legislation that hasn't been discussed or written about much. And that's the fact that this law is more likely to impact lower-income individuals — those who are less likely to be able to afford newer vehicles with hands-free phone connections.
There's also the potential that the law could be used by the police as a pretense for pulling people over. "I saw you using your phone," could become the new, "You didn't come to a complete stop back there." It's pretty hard to prove you weren't using your phone if an officer stops you and says he saw you using it. Sure, if you weren't using it and you get a ticket, you can go to court and show your phone records to prove it wasn't in use at the time, but that's a pain. Meanwhile, let's hope you weren't smoking weed when the phone police pull you over.
There has to be a balance between litigating against a dangerous habit — one that's potentially as dangerous as impaired driving — and making sure the law itself isn't abused. But all over the country, police departments are getting creative in enforcing distracted driving laws. Some departments have had officers ride along in big trucks, where they can look down into cars for scofflaws. Other departments are using cops on bicycles to pull up next to drivers and issue tickets. In Bethesda, Maryland, a police officer disguised himself as a homeless man near a busy intersection. He radioed to officers waiting down the road, identifying the texting drivers. That's some next-level sneaky!
The state has started a new campaign called Hands Free Tennessee, meant to educate (warn) drivers about what's coming. They're going to, uh, have their hands full, to say the least. Just for kicks, I stood on a sidewalk on Union the other day and watched the traffic as it rolled by. I'd say, conservatively, at least one of every three drivers was using their phone. A first offense will get you a $50 ticket that you can get waived by taking a driver-education course. After that, the fines increase exponentially.
The advice from the Hands Free campaign is to turn off your phone's notifications and alerts so you aren't tempted to answer a call or check that email or text — or respond to the latest move Brenda made in Words With Friends. But that's a lot to ask of Shelby Countians — the biggest phone criminals in America. Let's be honest, you're probably reading this column at a stoplight.