Tennessee hopes hands free cellphone law will decrease crashes caused by distracted driving

SHELBY CO., Tenn. — In two weeks, Tennessee drivers will no longer be able to legally use their phone while driving.

Texting while driving is already illegal in the state, as well as a handheld ban in active school zones.

Hoping to crack down on distracted driving with its latest law, Tennessee becomes the 19th state to ban cell phone use while driving.

The new law goes into effect July 1.

Among the changes, the law makes it illegal for drivers to: 1) hold a cellphone; 2) write/send/read texts’ 3) reach for a phone so no longer sitting; 4) watch a video on your phone; and 5) record/broadcast video on your phone.

Police across the state could issue fines starting at $50 and going as high as $200 for distracted driving.

The move comes as Tennessee hovered over 24,000 distracted driving crashes each of the past three years, according to data from the state Department of Safety & Homeland Security.

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Tennessee drivers accounted for 224,610 distracted driving crashes in 2018 and 5,592 crashes so far in 2019.

State data only accounts from Jan. 1 to March 31 for 2019 distracted driving crash data.

FOX13 calculated, using state data, that Shelby County accounted for 31 percent of all of state distracted driving crashes.

Eight additional counties in FOX13’s viewing area – Dyer, Crockett, Lauderdale, Tipton, Haywood, Fayette, Hardeman and McNairy counties -- accounted for a combined two percent of all distracted driving crashes.

No other county came close to Shelby.

Davidson County accounted for 10 percent of all distracted driving crashes in the state, which is three times less than Shelby.

Just to compare on a population size: according to data taken from the U.S. Census Bureau, Shelby has 14 percent of the state's population while Davidson accounts for 10 percent.

A February 2019 study ruled Tennessee the state with the highest fatality rate of distracted drivers.  According to ValuePenguin, Tennessee has a rate of 7.2 deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles.

The next highest fatality rate was Delaware at 3.28 deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles.

ValuePenguin wrote on its website that it “compiled traffic fatality data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2015 to 2017” to help it determine its distracted driving fatality rates.

FOX13 could not independently verify those numbers.

Handheld cell phone use is banned for all drivers in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Arkansas is not one of them, but the state does have a handheld ban for people 18 to 20 years old in school and highway work zones. Anyone under 18 can't use a cell phone at all.

Texting bans are much more widespread, with 48 states prohibiting texting and driving – including Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.