State House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick was on an access road near the Chickamauga dam when his cellphone rang with a question from a reporter.
Do you think the recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board to ban all cellphone use while driving — even hands-free phones — could get on the books in Tennessee?
“No!” he said, calling a ban a “silly” idea.
“No one would pay attention to it. I think [people] would completely ignore it,” said McCormick, R-Chattanooga. “I am talking to you right now while I am driving down the road.”
Other legislators in the Tennessee House and Senate didn’t speak as critically of the NTSB proposal, but their conclusion was the same: Such legislation stands little chance of becoming law in Tennessee.
Despite federal statistics that show more than 3,000 people were killed in the United States last year as a result of distracted driving — 408 in accidents involving cellphone use — cellphones have become such an integral part of everyday life that it may be virtually impossible to get Americans to stop using them while driving.
“It would make me a lot less productive,” said Joe Dell, a Chattanooga banker who often talks on his hands-free phone in the car. “It’s not a good idea.”
Still, no amount of inconvenience should outweigh safety, some say.
Reba Creesman, of Chattanooga, lost her 23-year-old son and her son’s best friend in February of this year when a 17-year-old distracted by his cellphone swerved and hit her son’s car head on. The teen said he was looking up something with his GPS, police reports show.
Right now, the teen faces only a traffic citation in connection with the deaths, she said.
Tennessee needs stronger distracted-driving laws that make people think twice about doing anything on their phone while at the wheel, she said.
“They didn’t deserve to die on their way home from work,” she said. “No text, no GPS, no phone call could be that important.”
The freedom argument
Some Republicans say a law banning cell usage while driving would inhibit individual freedoms.
“I think we have enough laws on the books that deal with distracted driving,” said Rep. Vice Dean, an East Ridge Republican and vice chairman of the state House Transportation Committee. “I am for less government and less intrusion. I am not anxious to see something like that move forward, and frankly I don’t think the General Assembly would be.
“It’s very possible that someone could propose [a ban],” he said. “There have been bills brought forward that were bans, but they didn’t move much.”
Neither the Department of Safety and Homeland Security nor the Tennessee Department of Transportation will push for a statewide ban, officials said.
But the Department of Safety is going to institute a policy that will prevent agency workers from talking on hand-held phones while driving, and other agencies could follow suit.
And Dean said he is drafting legislation in Tennessee to ban cellphone use in construction zones.
In Georgia, officials said the state has a problem with distracted driving, but it is more than just cellphones. Moving a mirror, changing the radio station, putting on makeup or taking a bite of a sandwich can pose similar risk.
But Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said he doesn’t see a total cellphone ban as being politically palatable in the Peach State.
“It took a lot of effort to get the texting-and-driving ban,” he said. “I don’t know if the public and the Georgia General Assembly are ready for that.”
In 1996, 14 percent of the population had cellphones, but now the equivalent of every American has one, a total of 322 million subscribers, according to data from CTIA, the International Association of Wireless Telecommunications.
On these phones, consumers talk 2.25 trillion minutes a year, a leap from 44.4 billion in 1996, the association’s data shows. Twenty-nine percent of residents use only wireless phones, forgoing the traditional home telephone.
With the advent of affordable smart phones, people are able to use their cells to multitask like never before. They conduct business in the school car pool line or during the daily commute. They catch up with family en route to a business appointment. They check their Facebook, their Twitter updates, look up directions and make sure the boss didn’t send an early email.
But while cellphones have helped save time, they arguably have made the roads less safe. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of commercial drivers found that an accident is 163 times more likely if a driver is texting, emailing, or accessing the Internet.
Growth in the number of wrecks related to cellphone use has pushed 10 states to prohibit handheld cellphone use while driving, although none is in the Southeast.
No state has banned all cellphone use for drivers, which would include hands-free devices, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Thirty states have outlawed all cellphone use for novice drivers and 19 states for school bus drivers.
Thirty-five state won’t allow texting while driving, according to the GHSA.
Legislators and agency leaders say walking the line between safety and personal convenience is difficult. Many of them don’t want to preach because they use cellphones to get work done in the car.
“In a modern world we have to find the right balance between allowing people to do their business and understanding that people are driving heavy, destructive machines,” said Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat and member of the Senate Transportation Committee. “That balance is hard to find.”
Beyond that, some Chattanooga police question whether an outright ban of cellphone use by drivers would even work.
“Communicating and talking [on a cellphone] is not much different than communicating with a passenger in the vehicle,” said Joe Warren, a traffic investigator with the Chattanooga Police Department. “It doesn’t take your eyes off the road or your hands off the steering wheel.”
A ban could affect police work, too.
“We use the radio to communicate while we are driving,” he said. “Outlawing this and outlawing that will not affect a lot. We have to modify drivers’ behaviors and the attitude that they take.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...