Tennessee Distracted Driving

(It's more than just not texting.)

Written by Meg Stefanac
Written by Meg Stefanac

Financial blogger and business owner, Meg Stefanac, has more than 15 years experience working in the financial services industry and enjoys helping individuals make solid financial decisions. Meg has extensive experience writing about insurance and finances and is a key contributor to TrustedChoice.com.

Distracted driving laws in Tennessee

There are about 250,000 car accidents every year in Tennessee. And most of these are simple distracted driving mistakes that are completely preventable.

One of the most important things you can do when behind the wheel of a car is to keep your attention focused on the task of driving so that you do not become distracted.

What Is Distracted Driving?

Tennessee defines distracted driving as “the act of driving while engaged in activities that divert the driver’s attention away from the road.”  

According to the Tennessee Traffic Safety Office, “There are three forms of distracted driving: cognitive, visual, and manual. Texting and driving is extremely dangerous because it involves all three forms of distracted driving.”

Most distracted driving, though dangerous, is perfectly legal. This can range from adjusting the A/C to breaking up an argument between backseat siblings.

Currently, Tennessee lawmakers are focused mainly on preventing distracted driving accidents that are caused by texting, emailing, or talking on the phone with handheld devices while driving.


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Distracted Driving Statistics in Tennessee

You don’t have to follow the local news every night to know that distracted driving is a problem, but here are a few statistics that might help you understand just how serious it is in Tennessee:

  • Tennessee has been cited as the worst state with regard to distracted driving fatalities.
  • Distracted driving is responsible for approximately 460 deaths a year in this state, at a rate five times the national average.
  • In the ten-year period from 2008 to 2018, a total of 207,928 accidents in this state were caused by distracted driving.
  • In 2018, there were 18,166 distracted driving accidents in the state.
  • This is a 29% reduction from 2017, when distracted driving caused 25,786 accidents.

Leading Causes of Driver-Error Accidents in Tennessee

Leading causes of accidents in Tennessee

Distracted driving is the fourth-highest cause of driver-error accidents in Tennessee. This highlights the very real risk that distractions present on this state's roadways. 

Does Tennessee Have Laws against Distracted Driving?


Tennessee has been named the worst state for distracted driving fatalities, though new laws hope to fix this. On July 1, 2019, the state instituted a ban on handheld cell phone usage. This law was added to the distracted driving laws already on the books.

The following is currently prohibited in Tennessee:

  • Handheld cell phone use is prohibited for all drivers.
  • Using any part of your body to support a cellphone or other wireless telecommunication device is prohibited while driving.
  • Reading, writing, or sending text messages while operating a motor vehicle is prohibited.
  • Reaching for a wireless device in a manner that requires the driver to no longer be seated in a driving position or properly restrained by a safety belt is prohibited.
  • Recording or broadcasting a video or movie on an electronic device is prohibited.
  • Drivers with learner’s permits or intermediate driver’s licenses, and all drivers under the age of 18, are prohibited from any type of cell phone use, even hands-free.
  • School bus drivers are prohibited from using cell phones while driving whenever there are passengers in the vehicle.
  • The installation of video monitors for the purpose of providing entertainment or business content for the driver is prohibited.

Are There Any Exceptions to the Distracted Driving Laws in Tennessee?


The Tennessee distracted driving law allows for the following exceptions:

  • Single-swipe of your cell phone is okay. But typing into it is not.
  • The use of GPS systems and dash cams is permitted.
  • Drivers age 18 and older may send and receive text messages if using voice-activated, hands-free technology.
  • Distracted driving laws do not apply when using a device to communicate with emergency personnel during an actual emergency.
  • Distracted driving laws do not apply to law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel who are using the device in the course of doing their jobs.
  • School bus drivers are permitted to use electronic communication devices with passengers on board if they are calling 911 or if they are engaged in two-way radio communication with dispatch or the school transportation department.

Tennessee Distracted Driving Laws at a Glance

            Yes             No
Is texting while driving legal?
Can you send/receive texts at a red light?                                                 X
Is handheld device use permitted?                                 X
Any special restriction for young drivers?                X                 
Is headphone/headset use permitted?                X                

Is It Legal to Eat a Cheeseburger while Driving in Tennessee?

Yes. But that doesn't really mean you should.

Distracted driving comes in many forms, and eating a cheeseburger can be just as distracting as talking on a cell phone.  Basically, anything that takes your attention away from the primary task of driving presents a potential hazard.

So, what happens if a police officer in Tennessee spots you snacking on a burger while driving down the highway? In most cases, nothing. There is no law that specifically states that you cannot eat while driving in this state.

However, even legal distractions (like eating or fiddling with the radio) can significantly increase your risk of being in an accident or driving erratically. You might get cited for reckless driving, so it's better to avoid as many distractions as possible.

Unless you're really in a hurry, you’re better off eating your cheeseburger indoors or in the parking lot.

What Is the Difference between Primary and Secondary Enforcement of Distracted Driving Laws?

Primary enforcement of distracted driving laws means that the police can pull you over if they see you violating state distracted driving laws.  

Secondary enforcement of distracted driving laws means that the police can cite you for violating distracted driving laws only if you break another law while doing so.

Tennessee uses primary enforcement.

This means that even if you are obeying all traffic laws and believe you are in total control of your vehicle while doing so, if a police officer witnesses you texting or using a handheld device while driving, you can be pulled over and given a citation.

What Is the Penalty for Distracted Driving in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, a violation of the distracted driving law is considered a Class C misdemeanor. The penalties for this violation are as follows:

  • For a first and second offense, the maximum fine is $50, plus up to $10 in court costs.
  • Third and any following offenses result in fines up to $100.
  • If an accident occurs while the driver is violating the distracted driving law, even if a first offense, they can be fined up to $100.
  • If a driver violated the distracted driving law while in a construction, work, or school zone, they can be fined up to $200.

First offenders can attend a driver education course instead of paying the fine. In addition to the imposed fine, distracted drivers will also have demerit points added to their driving records.

Penalties are tougher for school bus drivers who violate distracted driving laws. These drivers can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and can face a fine of at least $100 as well as up to 30 days in jail and be prohibited from ever operating a school bus in Tennessee again.

Tennessee compared to the rest of the US on texting and driving restrictions

States that have laws against texting and driving

Does Distracted Driving in Tennessee Increase Insurance Rates?

Because a citation for distracted driving in Tennessee adds points to your driving record, you can expect your insurance rates to go up following a citation. Also, if you had been enjoying a safe driver discount, it may be revoked as a result.

The amount your rates will go up is dependent on the insurance company you use and your overall driving history.

What If I Drive into Kentucky or Alabama?

Distracted driving laws vary by state, so you may be wondering what happens if you drive into a neighboring state that has different laws.

While Tennessee has now banned the use of all handheld devices while driving, a number of states like Kentucky and Alabama, at the time of this writing, have not. Does this mean that you can switch to handheld cell phone use once you drive over the border? In a word, yes. But why would you want to?

Although hands-free calling can still be distracting, it enables you to keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, making you safer. If you are already set up for hands-free calling, it only makes sense to continue to use it wherever you drive.


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What Is Tennessee Doing To Prevent Distracted Driving?

Tennessee doesn't want to maintain its status as the most dangerous state for distracted driving accidents. Local lawmakers are hoping that the new laws will have a positive impact on roadway safety.

Tennessee law enforcement is taking the handheld cell phone ban seriously. In the first month after the new law was enacted, police in this state issued 424 citations to drivers who continued to use handheld devices.

So What Can You Do?

Quite simply, just put the phone away — even if that means in the glove compartment. The fines themselves are definitely not worth it, let alone the more serious consequences to you and others on the road. Let’s all just get where we’re going safely and save the texting until you get home.

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