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Has Tennessee's hands free law made roadways safer?

Jonathan Roberts • Feb 20, 2020 at 10:00 AM

Since Tennessee’s “Hands-Free Law” went into effect last July 1, Washington County law enforcement agencies have issued more than 450 citations — more than 80% of them written by Johnson City police officers.

But is it making roads safer?

“I think anytime a new law is enacted, there’s a certain amount of time it takes to evaluate its effectiveness,” said JCPD Capt. and Interim Operations Maj. Brian Rice. “I think it’s too early to tell how effective (the law) is.”

From July 1 to Dec. 31, city police issued 201 citations and 135 written warnings for violations of the hands-free law — along with several dozen other citations for various cell phone use violations. Jonesborough police, meanwhile, issued 56 citations over the same time period.

“It’s something the public should not do, drive and text,” said Jonesborough Police Chief Ron Street, who said his department has seen widespread compliance with the law. “(The public) has done a good job, and most people are now complying with it.”

Under the current law, people are not allowed to hold a mobile device while driving unless they are “lawfully stopped or parked” or communicating with law enforcement or medical services during an emergency. The penalty for a first time offense is a $50 fine and three points on your drivers license.

When looking at accident data, Johnson City saw virtually no change in the total number of accidents from 2018 to 2019, though the total number of crashes has decreased thus far in 2020. Jonesborough,meanwhile, saw a 12.1% decrease in the total number of accidents from 2018 to 2019.

And though it’s unclear how much (if at all) that reduction can be attributed to the new law, data from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security shows that distracted driving-related crashes in the county fell by 100, or about 12%. Across the state, distracted driving-related crashes fell by 4.5%.

Only seven of the 2,037 crashes Johnson City Police responded to in 2019 led to charges of illegal cell phone use while driving.

Street said it’s hard to tell when accidents are the result of somebody texting while driving, as it’s difficult to determine unless the guilty party admits or they find other evidence. Rice said that it’s impossible to attribute Johnson City’s reduction in 2020 to the law, though he hopes it’s some combination of traffic enforcement and driver education.

In a statement to the Press, JCPD Police Chief Karl Turner said the department is “committed to the reduction of injury crashes” and that traffic enforcement is “very important” to the JCPD.

Opposition to the law

Though the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the law hasn’t yet been established, state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, is already pushing for a swift repeal.

Late last month, Lundberg introduced SB1751 to repeal the hands-free law in its entirety while claiming the current law may actually do more harm than good.

Lundberg said he’s concerned that people will continue to use their phones and, instead of using them in a safer manner where they can still see the road, they’ll try and hide their phone use, potentially leading to more danger.

“We pass laws to, obviously, create safety and also, hopefully, stop and create behavior,” Lundberg said. “I don’t think this is going to do that, and I think, frankly, we’re taking away a fundamental liberty people have to talk on their cell phone.”

“Are we making the road safer and having an impact? No,” he said.

Lundberg was also clear to make a distinction between talking on the phone while driving and texting while driving, saying that he “has situational awareness” when talking on a phone, but not when texting. He also said he would be open to amending the current repeal bill to maintain a total hands-free law when traveling through work and school zones.

Tassi Dalton, a criminal justice and criminology professor at East Tennessee State University also voiced similar concerns.

“I understand why they did it — I get it,” Dalton said, “however, I think it was an overreach and I think it’s created a lot of problems because people are more distracted trying to hide their phones from police.”

Dalton also mentioned that the law isn’t friendly to everyone, as not everybody has a smartphone with bluetooth capability or a vehicle that allows for hands-free cell phone use.

As for the status of the repeal, the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee deferred action on Monday, and instead placed it on the calendar for discussion on Feb. 26.

“I think, as a legislative body, when we enact something and we say the intentions were right but the policy is wrong, we have to be open enough to say we were wrong,” Lundberg said. “I have heard from both sides who have said they’re glad I filed the bill, and I’ve had others who were, obviously, less than pleased that I filed that.”

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