Tennessee House passes Holsclaw's bill to ban handheld phone usage while driving

Zach Vance • Apr 17, 2019 at 11:28 PM

A bill intended to reduce distracted driving by prohibiting handheld phone usage passed the Tennessee House of Representatives by a 53-38 vote on Wednesday.

Sponsored by Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, House Bill 0164 would ban drivers from physically holding or supporting a cell phone while driving, which would make hands-free calls via Bluetooth, speakerphone or other means the only legal way to talk on the phone and drive.

If the bill becomes law, a violation would be a Class C misdemeanor that would carry a fine of up to $50. If a person commits three offenses, or if the violation results in an accident, the fine would increase to $100. Violations occurring in work zones or marked school zones would be $200.

Among those exempt from the legislation include: law enforcement, emergency responders and people communicating with emergency service agencies during a “bonafide” emergency.

For the past three years, Holsclaw has advocated for this legislation, and a few years ago, he passed a similar bill prohibiting drivers from using cell phones while in a school zone.

“I got into thinking about saving lives and thinking about my family, and all these people that’s been affected by distracted driving. That was the whole premise of this bill,” Holsclaw said. “I was elated to pass it. It’s been a long, long battle.”

A study conducted by ValuePenguin, using 2015 through 2017 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, found Tennessee ranked first in the nation for having 7.20 distracted driving deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles.

“Our study found that Tennessee had the highest rate of distracted driving fatalities, nearly five times the national average of 1.49 fatalities per 10 billion vehicles miles. Tennessee’s laws regarding cellphones and driving are fairly strict — however, they do not ban the handheld use of cellphones for all drivers,” the study concluded.

Holsclaw said his bill was modeled after a similar law passed in Georgia last year.

“(Georgia) saw like a 41 percent decrease in distracted-driving incidents. They benefited in the reduction of accidents, plus their (automobile) insurance already started to be lower. So this bill is effective, and I think we need to do that to save lives,” Holsclaw told his colleagues on the House floor.

When it came time to vote, Holsclaw was the only lawmaker from Northeast Tennessee to support the bill. State Reps. Micah Van Huss, Matthew Hill, Timothy Hill, Bud Hulsey, David Hawk and John Crawford all voted in opposition.

As evidenced by the debate on the House floor preceding the vote, Holsclaw said the biggest objection to the bill is having “government tell us what we can and cannot do.”

“We’re not taking away your freedom,” Holsclaw said.

“To me, this is different than the seatbelt bill where if you wear your seatbelt, fine. If you don’t, fine. It only affects you. The difference with the distracted cell phone bill, if I run off the road or wreck and kill somebody, it affects others. To me, driving is a privilege. Not a right.”

While addressing Holsclaw on the House floor, Deputy Speaker Matthew Hill raised concerns about the bill being considered a moving violation, and thus would count for three points against a driver’s license.

“In other words, two of those (violations) and you don’t have a driver’s license anymore. So let’s be very clear about that,” Hill said. “We already have this piece of legislation in our code, and that is the distracted driving statute that we passed several years ago.”

Hulsey also aired his concerns on the House floor, saying not all drivers should be punished for using their cell phones.

“We’re starting to do what we do down here very well, and that is punish everybody who is not doing it,” Hulsey said. “For every person who cannot drive talking on the phone and causes problems, there are a thousand others who drive and talk on the phone every day.”

As a former police officer, Hulsey said it bothered him police officers were exempt. 

“It bothers me that you make an out for police who are going to write the ticket for you talking on the phone, and then drive down the phone and talk on the phone. I think that’s an error as well,” Hulsey said.

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Art Swann, R-Maryville, will present the bill to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday. Holsclaw said he felt confident his bill would clear both the Senate committee and full Senate chamber.