New year brings new law aimed at distracted drivers

TML Communications Specialist

Drivers found using cell phones in school zones will be facing new fines after a law designed to decrease traffic incidents near schools went into effect on Jan. 1.

Based on a bill sponsored by former state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and state Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, the new law makes it a Class C misdemeanor to operate any handheld device while in an active school zone.

Those found talking or otherwise operating a handheld device in a school zone could face up to a $50 fine for the action.

The law exempts those with hands-free devices, and texting while driving in school zones has already been prohibited. Drivers under the age of 18 are not allowed to operate handheld or hands-free phones while driving regardless of location.
The new law is designed to not only protect school children but also law enforcement officers and crossing guards directing traffic in school zones.

Major Matt Austin of the Bristol Police Department said drivers should be aware of the new law as students return from holiday breaks.

“A recent study by Safe Kids USA found that one in six drivers in school zones are distracted, with the most common distraction being cellphones,” Austin said. “It is wise to also remember that the speed limit is 15 miles per hour in a school zone. In Tennessee, a ticket in a school zone could result in fines of more than $200.”

Tracy told The Tennessean the bill came out of complaints constituents had over distracted driving.

“You should be concentrating on reducing your speed limit and paying attention,” Tracy said. “You have children walking and a lot of traffic around.”

Holsclaw said his sponsorship of the bill was the result of a few car accidents close to home.

“My nieces were in accidents that involved cell phones,” he said. “A lot of people consider it like a seat belt law, taking away my freedoms. I would rather save your life. It is that important to me.”

According to data from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, distracted driving-related crashes have increased in Tennessee each year between 2007 and 2016 with 2017 showing the first notable decrease in distracted driving crashes in a decade.

Tennessee passed its first distracted-driving laws in 2009, making it illegal to text while driving. The use of cell phones was banned completely for motorists under 18 or those operating school buses, save in the case of emergency.
Despite this, Tennessee had the highest number of distracted-driving related fatalities of any state in the nation in both 2010 and 2011, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

More than 130,000 crashes related to distracted driving have occurred in Tennessee since 2012.

Between 2007 and 2017, approximately 193,426 crashes that occurred in the state had distracted driving as a factor with 2016 recording the most distracted driving-related crashes in a single year with 24,773.

The highest percentage of crashes related to distracted driving also occurred in 2016 with distracted drivers playing a role in 12 percent of crashes.

Preliminary statistics for 2017 released in October indicated 22,700 distracted driving related crashes had occurred so far that year with 81 of those involving fatalities.

Urban areas with larger populations tend to see larger numbers of crashes while areas with less population and less cell phone coverage tend to see fewer crashes, according to the data.

The Memphis-Shelby County area reported the highest number of distracted driving crashes in the past decade with 47,910, followed by the Nashville-Davidson County area with 22,141, Rutherford County with 10,775, Knoxville-Knox County area with 9,657, and Williamson County with 8,753. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County area, Clarksville-Montgomery County, and Sumner County all recorded more than 5,000 distracted driving-related crashes in the past decade as well.