Chattanooga-area officials remind drivers that distracted driving is ‘risky and dangerous’

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Aaron Loden, a law enforcement liaison with the Tennessee Highway Safety Office, speaks at a news conference Monday about the Tennessee Highway Patrol's “Operation Hands Free" effort to reduce distracted driving. The news conference was held at the Tennessee Highway Patrol offices in Lookout Valley.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Aaron Loden, a law enforcement liaison with the Tennessee Highway Safety Office, speaks at a news conference Monday about the Tennessee Highway Patrol's “Operation Hands Free" effort to reduce distracted driving. The news conference was held at the Tennessee Highway Patrol offices in Lookout Valley.

Twenty-three pairs of eyes peered out the windows of a CARTA bus riding down Highway 153 on Monday, scanning the road for distracted drivers.

They saw plenty of drivers with their hands properly at 10 and 2, a small dog hanging out a driver's window, one man rushing to put his seat belt on and a woman looking down at her lap.

"She's texting while driving!" multiple people on the bus, which carried several state and local law enforcement officers, yelled out, pointing to a gray sedan passing on the left.

At the front of the bus, Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Cecil Harvey called in the distracted driver on a handheld radio. A state trooper on a motorcycle pulled out from behind the bus and switched on his blue lights.

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"Distracted driving is just too common," Steve Dillard, a law enforcement liaison with the Tennessee Highway Safety Office, said at a news conference Monday before the bus started its route. "It's dangerous and often leads to a preventable crash."

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which the state is marking with a "Hands Free Tennessee" campaign.

On Monday, buses like the one circling Chattanooga also rode around Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis with officers, officials and members of the media looking for distracted drivers. Electronic highway signs across the state Monday reminded drivers to go hands-free.


"Distracted driving is, in many ways, much like driving under the influence," Highway Patrol Sgt. Willis Moore said during the news conference. "Distracted driving not only divides your attention — by texting, talking on the phone, streaming video on your mobile device — it reduces your response time in the same way that alcohol or drugs can."

According to the THP, about one in 15 drivers involved in a crash in the past year was distracted at the time.

It's a problem in the Chattanooga area, officials said. In 2023, nearly 1,200 people hurt in car crashes came to Erlanger trauma centers, Jessica Holladay, nurse director of trauma and surgical critical care at Erlanger, said during the news conference Monday. Of those 1,179 people, 133 were children, she said.

"These collisions rank as the second most prevalent cause of traumatic injury of adults and children," Holladay said, adding, "it is dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists alike."

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In the Chattanooga area, a distracted driving crash happens about once every five hours, according to data from the patrol.

"The number one culprit is this device," Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett, holding up his cellphone, said at the news conference. "Not a day goes by as I'm traveling around this county that I don't see someone with a phone in their hand."

Sixty people died in Hamilton County car crashes last year, Garrett said. So far this year, 12 have died, he said.

Besides cellphones, backseat passengers, pets, makeup, eating and more complicated entertainment centers in new cars can all be distractions on the road, officials said. If you do need to text, do your makeup or make a call, officials said they recommend pulling over to do so.

"Let me be very clear — for those we don't reach by education, we're gonna reach them by enforcement," Garrett said.

The fine for a first citation for using a phone not hands-free is $50, and drivers can be charged $100 for a second or later offense or if their driving results in a crash. Fines are even higher in school and work zones.

A law that went into effect earlier this year upped the number of points added to young drivers' licenses for distracted driving citations, meaning their licenses could be suspended more quickly.

"The citation brings attention to what happened," Dillard, the law enforcement liaison, said in an interview. "It shows that your action was risky and dangerous, and we wanted to bring attention to you, to try to quit doing it."

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.


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