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Tennessee Legal: Texting and Tennessee 'Due Care Law'

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Distracted drivers make Tennessee the most dangerous state for mobile phone-related accidents.

Let that sink in: According to the National Safety Council, Tennessee drivers have more phone-related vehicle accidents than drivers in any other state. Vehicle crashes are the single largest cause of death for Tennesseans age 17-34.

Q: Does Tennessee have a law against texting while driving?

A: Yes. This 2009 law, at TCA section 55-8-199, makes it a Class C misdemeanor to send or read texts while driving - but the law says that a judge can ONLY impose a fine not to exceed $50 and not more than $10 in court costs.

Q: Are there any tougher Tennessee laws against distracted driving?

A: Yes. Many law enforcement officers have begun using an older Tennessee law passed in 1955 at TCA section 55-8-136, called the "Due Care Law."

Distracted driving can involve more than phone use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identifies three types of distraction:

  • Visual: taking your eyes off the road;
  • Manual: taking your hands off the wheel; and
  • Cognitive: taking your mind off of driving.

Tennessee's "Due Care Law" prohibits all three types of distracted driving. This law requires drivers to:

  • Operate the vehicle at a safe speed;
  • Maintain a safe lookout;
  • Keep the vehicle under proper control;
  • Devote full time and attention to operating the vehicle; and
  • Act under the circumstances as necessary to protect life and property and avoid colliding with vehicles, persons, or fixed objects.

The penalties include a fine of up to $50 plus full court costs and up to 30 days in jail.

An updated 2011 law makes it a Class B misdemeanor if failure to exercise due care results in serious injury to a pedestrian or bicyclist, and a Class A misdemeanor in the event of death.

James B. (Jim) Hawkins is a Tennessee general practice and public interest law attorney. This column represents legal information, and is not intended to take the place of legal advice. All cases are different and need individual attention. Consult with a private attorney of your choice to review the facts and law specific to your case. To suggest future column topics, call (615) 452-9200.

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