Most of us can agree that mobile devices like smartphones and tablets allowed us all to connect to our world in many new and exciting ways. We also know that their popularity can come with some big drawbacks, particularly when they attract the attention of someone behind the wheel of a car.
Simply put, looking at our phones requires us to take our eyes off the road, which can cut down on reaction time if conditions change suddenly in front of us, such as the sudden appearance of a pedestrian, an out-of-control vehicle, an animal, or dangerous road or weather conditions.
Even hands-free devices designed to keep us from pushing buttons or holding the phone with one hand to our ear still can take attention away from the primary focus of driving safely.
To combat this safety threat, states around the country have been strengthening their distracted driving laws. Although increasing phone use and higher safety concerns can be the primary reason for many of these stricter laws, the final language can often include other potentially unsafe tasks such as eating, drinking, putting on makeup, or interacting with people in the car.
Officer discretion can certainly play a role – you may receive a warning and a reminder about local laws, or, if your distraction was creating unsafe conditions or in a populated location, a citation could be in order.
Tennessee distracted driving laws
Tennessee has had general distracted driving laws on the books for several years, but recently updated its laws to add a separate clause regarding the use of mobile devices. Code 55-8-199, approved in 2009, “prohibits the use of a mobile telephone or a personal digital assistant to transmit or read a written message while driving.” This could be a phone, tablet, even a laptop, which can be used to read or send messages.
While the prohibited actions (using/transmitting/reading) are specific, the law doesn’t specifically prohibit holding a phone to talk, or using a hands-free device to communicate.
However, there are several occasions where a driver observed holding a phone could receive a citation, even if they’re not listening or talking on it.
Certain drivers, such as school bus drivers can’t be seen using a phone while driving with passengers. Drivers in training with permits and intermediate licenses are also prohibited from using a phone anytime while driving.
Phones are also prohibited in active school zones as of Jan. 1, 2018. School zones are defined as school boundaries during normal hours of operation, such as standard weekdays when the posted speed limit/school zone sign is flashing. This is considered a primary offense, which means you can be pulled over for it.
Law enforcement in many municipalities have been active in trying to spot violators, even posting plain-clothed officers on sidewalks to be less noticeable than officers in marked cars.
If you’re cited
While a distracted driving citation can count against your license points and could eventually result in the loss of driving privileges, being cited for using a phone in a school zone doesn’t add points, since it’s not technically a moving violation.
Violators of the phone law in a school zone can face a $60 fine. Texting and driving can also face a $50 fine plus $10 in court costs. Distracted driving offenders can also face the possibility of insurance companies raising their rates.
However, a bus driver observed with a phone could face fines of at least $100 and 30 days in jail, plus possible discipline by his or her employer.
Whatever the outcome, be prepared for a lecture from a judge or magistrate about the reasons why the state has firm laws against phone use, especially in school zones. School zones contain many children who are biking, walking, or getting on and off buses. This combined with many vehicles converging in one geographic area makes distracted driving a greater risk.
A lawyer with experience in traffic and distracted driving laws can discuss possible legal options and possible defenses with you. For instance, you may recall that you weren’t using your phone or didn’t have it in your hand when you were cited for it. Or, you aren’t quite sure what the citing officer observed. Legal assistance also can be helpful if you’ve been in an accident that likely was caused by distracted driving or phone usage.
One possible exemption to the “no phones in school zone” rule or “no phone use by a bus driver” is that they can be used for emergency purposes. If you can demonstrate to a judge that you were experiencing or assisting with a legitimate emergency, he or she may consider dismissing the matter. This could include documentation or screenshots of texts in that time period from a hospital, workplace or public safety agency.
In some cases, a first offender appearing in court may be able to see a reduced fee or lesser charge. But these “second chances” may diminish every time they return. Contacting an experienced personal injury lawyer can help you weigh all potential options and get the best end result. Nonetheless, we should all do our best to avoid distracted driving for the safety of ourselves and others.