Tennessee: Cell phone laws, legislation

Last updated: March 9, 2017
Distracted driving news: Legislators are considering at least seven distracted driving-related measures for 2017-18, several of them reruns from the previous session. State Sen. Lee Harris filed bills that would permit the scanning of drivers’ personal electronic devices after crashes in which a serious injury or a death occurs. Harris included a fallback measure that targets school bus drivers’ devices. Officers who have “probable cause” most likely would use the new “textalyzers” to see if the drivers were using their devices at the time of the crash.

Tennessee state flagTennessee toughened its texting & driving penalties in 2016. The new sanctions make texting a moving violation that comes with demerit points. Gov. Bill Haslam signed House Bill 1511 into law May 20. Legislation that would have outlawed driving while using handheld cell phones failed to make it out of committee.

Current distracted driving prohibitions:

  • Text messaging prohibited while operating a motor vehicle in Tennessee.
  • Drivers with learner’s permits or intermediate licenses prohibited from using cell phones while driving.
  • School bus operators prohibited from using cell phones while driving, if passengers are present.
  • Installation or use of video monitors in a motor vehicle are prohibited if the intent is to provide entertainment or business content for the driver.

Read the Tennessee text messaging law.

2017 distracted driving legislation:
Senate Bill 0324: Would permit scanning of driver’s portable electronic device after crashes in which a serious injury or death occurs. Officers would need probable cause. (Harris)

SB 0323: Would allow scanning of school bus driver’s portable electronic device after crashes in which a serious injury or death occurs. (Harris)

SB 0658: Would classify violations of electronic device law to class B misdemeanor if serious injury results and class A if death results. (Tracy)

SB 0954: Would prohibit driving while using handheld cell phones. Drivers under age 18 barred from using cell phones with hands-free devices as well. Class C misdemeanor with $50 fine. (Tracy)

House Bill 0854: Same as Senate Bill 0324, above. (Mitchell)

HB 0864: Same as SB 0658, above. (Holsclaw)

HB 0868: Same as SB 0954, above. (Holsclaw)

Distracted driving notes (2017):
State Sen. Jim Tracy delayed consideration of his SB 0954 for several weeks in March, in order to work on its wording.

State Sen. Lee Harris is in a good position to answer questions about the constitutional issues raised by his plan to allow textalyzer searches of suspected cell phone users after serious wrecks: He’s a law professor and a graduate of Yale’s law school.

More than 24,700 crashes in the state were linked to distracted driving in 2016.

Distracted driving legislation (2016):
SB 1596: Would require license revocation for school bus drivers who transport children while using a portable electronic device. Makes offense a Class A misdemeanor. At least 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Approved by Transportation Committee in a unanimous vote of Feb. 29. Approved by the full Senate in a unanimous vote of March 7. Approved by the full House in a 92-1 vote of April 20. Signed into law by the governor April 28. Takes effect July 1. Same as HB 1484, below. (Massey)

House Bill 1511: Would make texting & driving a moving violation and assign 4 demerit points vs. driver’s license. Approved by the Transportation Committee in a voice vote of March 22. Approved by the full House in a 52-36 vote of March 28. Amended and approved by the Senate in a 20-11 vote of April 19. Final approval by the House in a 73-14 vote of April 20. Signed into law by the governor May 20. Takes effect July 1. (Lollar)

HB 1556: Would outlaw driving while using handheld cell phones. Drivers under age 18 barred from using cell phones with hands-free devices as well. Class C misdemeanor with $50 fine. Approved by Transportation subcommittee Feb. 17. Approved by Transportation on March 8. Died in committee. (Holsclaw)

Senate Bill 1589: Same as HB 1511, above. Approved by the Transportation Committee in a 5-4 vote of March 14. Companion House Bill substituted April 7. (Jackson)

HB 1421: Would make texting & driving a moving violation. Removes $10 cap on court costs. (Lollar)

SB 1442: Same as HB 1421, above. (Jackson)

SB 1655: Same as HB 1556, above. (Tracy)

HB 1484: Approved via voice vote by the House Transportation Committee on Feb. 2. “Placed behind the budget” Feb. 17. Same as SB 1596, above. (Smith)

2016 distracted driving notes:
The Highway Patrol wrote 13,549 tickets for texting & driving in 2016. The state saw 1,037 deaths last year, an increase of 75 over the previous years. That’s the highest number of traffic deaths since 2008. Highway Patrol officers indicated distracted driving was most likely a factor in the spike in deaths.

In addition to the new texting & driving penalties, the governor also signed into law a crackdown on school bus drivers who text and use cell phones on the job. The new law takes away offenders’ licenses and makes them subject to at least 30 days in jail and a minimum $1,000 fine. The law bars use of a variety of portable electronic devices but allows for two-way radio communication with dispatch. “The strengthened penalties should make it very clear that the safety of our children is our No. 1 priority,” said House sponsor Eddie Smith. The succeeding legislation, signed April 28, was Senate Bill 1596 (above). It was inspired by a 2014 Knoxville crash linked to texting that killed two children and a teacher’s aide.

Tennessee logged 5,614 crashes related to distracted driving in 2016. That’s down significantly from 2015, in which almost 23,000 were reported. There were 18 fatalities linked to distractions, also down from 2015, which had 51, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security said.

A 2016 law that removes from the job school bus drivers who text & drive was inspired by a late 2014 Knoxville crash that killed two children and a teaching assistant. The bill was signed into law in April 2016. Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen said that “Tennessee now has the strongest law in the nation when it comes to distracted school bus drivers.”

There is no state law against cell phone use, handheld or otherwise, and none was proposed 2013 through 2015. State Rep. John Holsclaw proposed legislation for 2016 that would ban handheld use of cell phones in Tennessee. The Republican notes it is “almost impossible to enforce the (current) texting ban,” and says a handheld law is “the next step in doing what is necessary to curb distracted driving and keep Tennessee roads safe.” His plan would assess $50 fines but no points. Approved by Transportation on March 8 but failed to advance. See HB 1556, above.

Holsclaw said: “In 2015 alone, 1,336 car crashes in Tennessee have been attributed to distracted driving due to cell phone usage.”

Rep. Bill Sanderson, who opposed the Holsclaw handheld plan in committee, said, “Distracted driving has been with us since they made that first car.” He said the result would be “overreaching government trying to legislate common sense.” He was one of four voting against the bill in a voice vote of March 8.

Texting & driving tickets were up 24 percent in 2015, state troopers say. The safety department says distracted driving crashes rose by 8 percent in 2015. Tennessee suffered 40 fatalities attributed to cell phone use in since 2010, state safety data show.

Colonel Tracy Trott of the Tennessee Highway Patrol told the House Transportation Committee in January that distracted driving will be the No. 1 issue for public safety in Tennessee over the next five years. He believes distracted driving could be the cause of up to half of crashes in the state. “The number of texts (young drivers) send is staggering,” he told the panel.

2015 distracted driving notes:
State Rep. John Holsclaw says he’d like to funnel revenues from his any handheld cell phone law to driver education. “My intent with proposing this legislation is to save lives and make our roads safer for your family and mine,” Holsclaw said.

A plan to significantly increase the fine for texting & driving in Tennessee was under consideration in 2015 in the General Assembly. Twin bills were introduced in the Senate and House seeking to hike the maximum penalty from $50 to $250. State Sen. Jim Tracy notes that he’s had constituents killed by distracted drivers: “We hope if we can get the fine increased, it will defer people from texting while driving.” The state’s texting & driving law is almost 6 years old.

2015 distracted driving legislation:
Senate Bill 0443: Would hike the maximum fine for texting while driving to $250, from the current $50. Also increases fine for not wearing a seat belt. In Senate Transportation and Safety Committee. (Tracy)

House Bill 0451: Would increase the maximum fine for texting while driving to $250. Same as SB 443, above. (Lundberg)

2014 distracted driving legislation:
House Bill 1869: Bars police from “searching, examining, extracting or duplicating” data from a cell phone without a search warrant or owner’s consent. Allows for “exigent circumstances.” Approved by the House on March 27. Approved by the Senate on April 7. Signed into law by the governor April 24. (Carter) (Companion bill was SB 1757)

House Bill 1659: Would allow for fines of up to $1,000 for second offenses of using a handheld cell phone to transmit text messages. Removes limit on court costs for texting cases. Failed to advance. (Shaw)

Senate Bill 1993: Would set fines of up to $1,000 for serial texting offenses. Same as HB 1659, above. Failed to advance. (Harper)

2014 distracted driving notes:
State Rep. Johnny Shaw failed in an attempt to allow fines of up to $1,000 for serial offenders of Tennessee’s texting & driving law. Shaw told a House panel hearing his plan that he’d had two texting-related deaths in his district last fall. The bill also would have removed a cap on court costs for all texting convictions. The House Transportation and Safety subcommittee took no action after the Feb. 19 hearing and the bill died, as did its Senate companion bill.

The Tennessee General Assembly was out front of the U.S. Supreme Court in enacting a law against searches of cell phones. State lawmakers barred the searching of cell phone data without a warrant in 2014. The nation’s high court later ruled that police could not perform warrant-less searches of mobile phones of those under arrest. (The Tennessee law allows for searches only in urgent circumstances.) Neither the lawmakers nor justices directly addressed distracted driving stops, but police often seek to check cell phones for evidence of texting.

2013 distracted driving notes:
Tennessee has the highest percentage of fatalities attributed to cell phone use in the nation, the National Safety Council reported in summer 2013.

The Highway Patrol is using its tractor-trailer truck in order to spot and cite drivers who text message. The vehicle, which is marked, is being shared by the districts. Troopers typically keep the truck in the center lane and look down on drivers. “They don’t see (the truck) because they’re distracted,” one officer said in October 2013. The campaign also targets motorists who don’t use seat belts — but the focus is on texting & driving.

A survey of middle Tennessee law enforcement agencies turned up only 389 citations since the texting & driving law went into effect in 2010. Most were written in metro Nashville, the Tennessean reported in September 2013. Police say the texting law is difficult to enforce because motorists typically say they are entering phone numbers into their mobile devices.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol issued 355 citations for text messaging while driving in the first half of 2013. That compares with 355 THP distracted driving tickets for all of 2012.

Tennessee reported the most fatalities linked to cell phone use by drivers in 2010 and 2011, the National Safety Council reported in mid-2013. States with larger populations reported far fewer, but the gap may be explained by underreporting of distracted driving’s role in crashes. (Read the texting fatality report, PDF.)

Fifty-six fatalities in 2012 were blamed on distracted driving, officials said in their annual report on Tennessee traffic deaths. “Distracted driving is the No. 1 killer of teens nationwide,” Governor’s Highway Safety Office chief Kendell Poole said, noting that teen traffic fatalities increased over 10 percent in the state. Overall in 2012, there were 1,019 traffic-related deaths in Tennessee.

2013 distracted driving legislation:
HB 1292: Would require driver education courses to cover texting while driving — the dangers and criminal penalties for violations. Died in subcommittee.

SB 1356: Requires driving education courses to cover text messaging while driving. Same as HB 1292. Died in committee.

2012 distracted driving notes:
Almost all Tennessee drivers feel that texting while behind the wheel is dangerous, but more than a quarter of them do it anyway, a University of Tennessee survey shows. The Center for Transportation Research found 89 percent of drivers thought texting was a threat to their safety. That’s slightly more than those who said the same about drinking and driving. Nonetheless, 27 percent of those surveyed said they had texted while driving in the past month. “It is telling that Tennesseans now find (texting) a threat equal in severity to drinking and driving,” research chief Jerry Everett said. Read the traffic study (PDF).

The number of cell phone-related crashes in Tennessee topped 1,000 in 2011. That’s up from about 650 in 2008.

2012 distracted driving legislation:
House Bill 2998: Would prohibit operation of vehicle with an animal in the driver’s lap or between the driver and driver’s door. Approved by the House in a 58-30 vote of April 2. To the Senate. (Cobb)

SB 3110: Would prohibit operation of vehicle with an animal in the driver’s lap or between the driver and driver’s door. Same as HB 2998, above. (Yeager)

2011 distracted driving notes:
A July 1, 2011, addition to the Tennessee vehicle code specifies that motorists must use “due care” to avoid hitting pedestrians and bicyclists. While the amendment does not specifically address distracted driving, the growth of handheld electronics use by drivers was cited throughout the debate over SB 1171/HB1007. Drivers who hit pedestrians or bicyclists face tougher penalties including jail time and loss of license.

A Chattanooga City Court judge is pushing for an ordinance that would make text messaging while driving a moving violation (misdemeanor). Tennessee’s texting ban is limited to non-moving offenses, meaning no points are added to the driver’s license and there are no insurance problems. The overlap with state law also would allow distracted driving cases to be heard in city courts.

Frustrated by trying to catch drivers who are texting, Nashville police have starting cruising for violations in unmarked SUVs. The oversized vehicles allow for clear visibility of drivers using handheld devices, allowing officers to distinguish between texting and dialing a cell phone. Most of these vehicles were seized in criminal cases.

The Highway Patrol issued 171 tickets for texting and driving in 2010. In 2009, the year the texting law took effect, 54 citations were handed out over a six-month period.

2011 distracted driving legislation:
House Joint Resolution 200: Urges drivers to refrain from using mobile telephones while driving in marked school zones. No law resulted. Unanimous approval of House on April 24 and Senate on May 21. Signed by governor May 25. (Gilmore)

HB 1042: Would prohibit drivers from using handheld cell phones in school zones while warning lights are flashing. Maximum fine of $50. Non-moving violation; no points. Removed from Transportation Committee subcommittee calendar April 5. (Gilmore)

SB 0702: Same as HB 1042, above. Removed from Transportation Committee subcommittee calendar April 5. (Henry)

SB 581/HB 322: Would have prohibited using cell phones while driving in active school zones. Fine: $50. (Henry/Gilmore).

2010 legislation (dead):
HB 2943: Would prohibit use of cell phones while driving in Tennessee unless a hands-free device is employed. Fine $50. Failed to advance after introduction. (Sontany)

2009 legislation:
SB 0393: Would outlaw text messing while driving. Signed into law. History: Approved by the Senate in a 22-6 vote on April 23, 2009, and by the House on April 27 with amendments specifying exemptions such as police. The Senate approved the final text messaging bill on April 30 and sent it to the governor, who signed it into law on May 13.

HB 0107: Would prohibit text messaging by drivers on Tennessee roads. Cites cell phones and PDAs. Same as anti-texting legislation SB 393. Approved by the House Transportation Committee on April 7, 2009, with a provision that the state post road signs warning of the ban. House substituted SB 393 for HB 107 (House version dead.)

HB 0331: Would ban use of cell phones while driving unless a hands-free device such as a headset is employed. Same as handheld cell phone legislation SB 884.

2008 legislation:
Cell phone-related legislation that was either rejected or allowed to die in the 2008 Tennessee legislative session:

HB 2550 and SB 2726: Would have prohibited drivers from using cell phones without hands-free devices. (Also SB 2726, SB 3670 and HB 2550)

HB 2618 and SB 2669 (identical): Would have prohibited text-messaging while driving.

SB 0088 and HB 0045 (identical): Would have prohibited the use of a cell phones when passing through a school zone as children are coming and going.

Previous Tennessee legislation notes:
Tennesee’s new law prohibiting text messaging while driving comes with a $50 fine for violators with $10 court costs. It is a non-moving offense, with no points added to the driver’s license. Enforcement began July 1, 2009.

Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, sponsor of the House version of the texting bill (HB 107), saw his bill delayed by two weeks in a transportation subcommittee. An opponent of the bill sought an opinion from the state attorney general, who replied that under current Tennessee traffic laws “an officer has the authority to issue a traffic citation to any driver who is operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner, regardless of whether such unsafe operation is caused by cell phone use, text messaging or any other activity that prevents the driver from exercising reasonable care in the operation of the vehicle.”

Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, saw his SB 393 approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on March 10. The anti-driving and texting legislation passed on a 6-1 vote. “I don’t think we can legislate against stupidity,” said the nay voter, Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet.

Sen. Tracy, the author of SB 393, said earlier in the session: “From what I’ve heard from other lawmakers, I think we’re in good shape. I feel like it will pass this year. I think we have the momentum to do it.” His previous attempt died in subcommittee. Texting while driving would bring a maximum $50 fine and $10 court costs.

Tennessee Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, saw his text-messaging bill send to a “special summer study committee” during the 2008 session, a move often used to kill legislation. He reintroduced the text messaging legislation as HB 107 for the 2009 session. Lundberg’s measure would have mandated a misdemeanor for any driver who wrote or read text messages. The fine would have been $50.

Columnist Gail Kerr wrote about the text messaging debate in the Tennessean: “Is a law necessary? Yes. People are driving stupid. Teens have died. If the state doesn’t tell them to stop it, they’ll keep doing it. … Let’s put it this way. Would you want to be driving on a narrow, twisting road when the driver on the other side of the yellow line is text messaging? Didn’t think so.”

Six graduate students at the University of Tennessee are lobbying along with the American Automobile Association for passage of bills banning handheld cell phone use and text messaging by drivers.

The ban on school bus drivers’ use of cell phones was enacted in 2003.

The ban on cell phone use by drivers with learner’s permits or intermediate licenses was enacted in 2005.

The video screen law was revised during the 2008 session.


  1. Tamara Blanchette says:

    I think if the law would impose a very stiff fine like a DUI … big fine ..no less than $ 2500 per offense and /or go to jail.. this would eliminate quite a few people driving and texting. At the school where I pick up my middle scholl kids. there is a parent that drives thru traffic while reading a book /.. I mean really? Can any book be that good? that you endanger a childs life and that you have to read in traffic where kids are walking around?

  2. Suzi McLaughlin says:

    My husband was killed last month because the other driver was distracted while on her cell phone and stopped in the middle of the road…who do i write to try and get a no cell phone or hands free law in the state of TN?

  3. Fine for commercial drivers in the State of Tennissee will be $2,750.00 for talking or texting on a cell phone. Is this for any and all commercial tagged vehicles or a certain type vehicle?

  4. I have had a couple of drivers come in and say that the new fine for commercial drivers in the State of Tennissee will be $2,750.00 for talking or texting on a cell phone. Is this true & if it is can you send me something on it?

    • That is the federal fine for interstate truckers (see previous comment). The added fine for employers could hit $11,000. There are a few Google references to Tennessee trucking and cell phones, but those articles refer to the federal prohibitions, which go into effect in a few weeks.

  5. is there any new laws going afect dec 31 2011 comercial trucks?cel phone use?

    • Mike, the new federal regulation prohibits interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating their vehicles. They already are prohibited from texting while driving. The cell phone rule takes effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, so late December sounds right. Read the trucking cell phone regulation.

      • Ok i know it says that school bus drivers cant use cell phones while kids are on the bus but it does not come out and say you cant use bluetooths … are they also banned.

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