Transportation and road safety continued to be a priority of the Tennessee General Assembly during the 2019 legislative session. The total Transportation budget amounts to $2.3 billion, with just less than half coming from federal funding. The legislation below went into effect on July 1st of this year. We will continue to keep the safety of Tennesseans in mind as we continue to pass legislation in the upcoming 2020 session.
Handheld Phones / Driving — Road safety is the impetus behind legislation passed this year which prohibits a person from physically holding or supporting a cellphone while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is lawfully stopped or parked. A person may still talk on the phone while driving but must do so using hands-free devices such as an earpiece, headphone device, wrist device, or connectivity to a vehicle.
Those drivers found in violation are subject to a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by fine only, not to exceed $50 for the first and second offense. The violation will result in a $100 fine for a person’s third offense or if the violation results in an accident, while the fine is $200 if it is in a work zone when workers are present or in a marked school zone when warning flashers are on.
A function or feature of the cellphone, such as GPS navigation, may be used if the device is mounted in a manner that does not hinder the view of the road and can be activated or deactivated with the motion or swipe of a finger.
A study conducted utilizing National Highway Traffic Administration data shows Tennessee was the worst state in the nation for cellphone distracted driving deaths with nearly five times the national average of 1.49 fatalities per 10 billion vehicle miles. The purpose of the legislation is to save lives by discouraging distracted driving.
DUI / Implied Consent – Another bill aiming to make Tennessee’s roads safer clarifies and strengthens Tennessee’s DUI law by aligning blood tests with breath tests in the state’s implied consent statute. The new law deletes the criminal punishment for refusal to consent to a sobriety test, aligning Tennessee law with the Supreme Court case of Birchfield v. North Dakota.
Currently, a driver is deemed to have given implied consent to a breath test, and a refusal is subject to license suspension or an ignition interlock device for their vehicle. The new law aligns blood tests with breath tests and invokes the same penalties for refusal to comply.
Accident Reports / Public Records – Legislation protecting people’s private information after being involved in a motor vehicle accident has passed. The new statute redacts personally identifying information from accident reports to prevent victims from being constantly and illegally solicited. The personally identifying information redacted includes a person’s address, telephone number, driver license number, and insurance information.
County Road Relief Act – Legislation which continues indefinitely a 2015 law that gives Tennessee counties more opportunities to tap into State Aid Road Grant Program funds was approved. The law, which makes it easier for counties to access state funds to upgrade, repair and improve local roads, was set to expire in 2019. Before, in order to receive funding through the State Highway Aid System, local governments had to provide a 25 percent match. The 2015 law, which is now permanent, allows local governments to use state highway aid for a project, as long as the county contributes at least two percent of the approved project cost or provides in-kind work as approved by the Department of Transportation.