Distracted driving is an increasing problem on Tennessee roads. In 2016, distracting actions caused nearly 25,000 accidents resulting in death, injury and damage to property across the state.

Despite statewide campaigns spreading the word about alarming distracted driving facts and its dangers, Tennessee accident rates remain high. Worse, authorities believe that texting and driving accidents are a direct cause of the state’s tragically high teen-driver death rate.

Statewide texting and driving laws about texting have been in place in Tennessee for years. As primary laws, they are generally enforceable and include provisions for a variety of drivers and situations.

However, the consequences for these actions are relatively mild compared to those applied to equivalent violations in other states. State lawmakers are somewhat unique in that they have not joined their counterparts from across the nation in calling for stricter penalties over the last two years.

What is distracted driving in Tennessee?

Tennessee transportation authorities define distracted driving as operating a vehicle while some or all of the driver’s attention is deflected or pulled away from the vehicle and the road. Ongoing state public awareness campaigns calling attention to driving distracted are attempting to educate drivers on the three types of distractions that can lead to tragedy.

  • Cognitive distractions happen when motorists allow themselves to focus on something other than their driving, such as work, stressful relationships or their vehicles’ passengers.
  • Visual distractions take place any time a driver takes his or her eyes off the road, whether to read a text, check a GPS map or to check out something interesting spotted along the roadway.
  • Manual distractions are when drivers remove their hands from the wheel to hold food or beverages, manipulate electronic devices or search for an item.

Each of these types of distractions is dangerous. Cell phone use while driving is particularly risky because it involves at least two and sometimes all three types of distractions.

Distracted Driving Laws in Tennessee for Handheld Devices

The distracted driving law in Tennessee does not universally ban the use of cell phones or other hand-held devices. Talking on the phone while driving without the use of hands-free devices is only prohibited in specific circumstances.

For instance, motorists may not use hand-held devices in active school zones. School bus drivers may not use hand-held devices while transporting passengers. In both cases, cell phone use is legal as long as hands-free devices are employed.

Texting and Driving Laws in Tennessee

Tennessee law dictates that there can be no texting and driving by motorists regardless of their age, skill level or type of license. Importantly, the state’s texting while driving laws only apply to while motorists’ vehicles are in motion. Drivers stopped at red lights or stop signs or otherwise behind the wheel of a running vehicle are not in violation of the law if they text so long as their vehicles do not move until after they complete their texting.

Tennessee Laws on Distracted Driving for Novice Drivers

Tennessee lawmakers recognize that texting while driving is both more prevalent and deadlier among younger, less experienced drivers than it is in older, more seasoned motorists.

In an attempt to mitigate that higher level of risk, state laws against distracted driving forbid any motorist who holds a learner’s permit or who is younger than 18 years of age to use a cell phone or other electronic device while driving. The prohibition includes hand-held and hands-free use.

Tennessee Distracted Driving Regulations for CDL Holders

Tennessee has no laws on distracted driving that apply only to commercial driver’s license (CDL) holders as a comprehensive category. Certain subtypes of CDL holders, such as school bus drivers, are subject to additional regulations in particular circumstances but CDL holders are otherwise held to the same standards as all other motorists.

Distracted Driving Penalties in Tennessee

Distracted driving consequences in Tennessee can be challenging to enforce. The lack of a total hand-held device ban means that in order to issue a texting and driving ticket, law enforcement must actively catch a driver texting and prove that he or she was doing so, as opposed to using his or her device for other, legally-approved purposes.

Law enforcement cannot necessarily tell motorists’ ages simply at a passing glance, which may result in many minors not being pulled over for illegal cell phone use.

When a distracted driving ticket is issued, the violation is considered a Class C misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $50. Additional traffic court fees of up to $10 may apply. First-time offenders will also be mandated to satisfactorily complete a qualifying drivers education course.

Novice drivers ticketed for texting may be fined up to $100 and may not be allowed to apply for an unrestricted driver’s license for an additional 90 days beyond when they would normally have qualified to do so.

Tennessee penalties are static rather than cumulative. Texting and driving fines are the same each time motorists receive tickets, rather than escalating over time with repeated offenses.

Ways to Prevent Distracted Driving in Tennessee

Distracted driving and texting accidents take a heavy toll on Tennessee and its motorists. Tennessee is one of the ten deadliest states in the nation when it comes to driving fatalities and ties for first place in state rankings for highest teen driver deaths.

In an effort to stop distracted driving and help reduce these tragedies, the Tennessee Highway Safety Office has issued the following recommendations for all drivers.

  • Set phones aside. As often as possible, avoid using phones and other devices for any purpose while driving. If a phone or device must be used, then avoid the cell phone distracted by connecting the device to a suitable hands-free device or pull over to take the call, send the text, etc.
  • Get fully set up before putting the car in gear. Pre-set GPS devices before beginning to drive. Secure personal belongings and make sure any money or other objects you will need while driving are at hand and easy to grab.
  • Prevent passenger disruptions. Children, pets and other passengers should be safely belted into their seats before the drive begins and stay there. In the event that passengers become disruptive, drivers should pull over to handle to issue before resuming their drives.
  • Do not eat and drive. Motorists should make time to eat before or after driving so that their hands can remain on the wheel and their attention can stay on the road while the vehicle is in motion.
Last updated on Wednesday, October 14 2020.