Chattanooga personal injury attorneys C. Mark Warren and John Mark Griffin have spent years advocating for stricter hands-free driving laws, putting their faces and "NVR TXT & DRV" ad campaign on billboards and the sides of buses in the city.
The years of advocacy seem to have paid off as a new law takes effect on July 1 that makes it illegal for Tennesseans to use hand-held cell phones while driving.
The new law allows only hands-free usage of a mobile phone on any road or highway in the state, and Tennesseans who use hand-held mobile phones while driving will face fines of up to $50 and see points added to their driving record.
Under current traffic laws in the state, a driver cannot text and drive at all and cannot speak on a hand-held phone in a school zone. All cell phone use is prohibited for those under 18 right now and will still be under the new law.
Warren and Griffin, P.C. is located on the top floor of the historic Dome Building in downtown Chattanooga, and the two lawyers and friends started their "NVR TXT & DRV" campaign about 10 years ago after they said they noticed a roughly 20% increase in the number of distracted driving cases.
"We see both sides of the case," Warren says. "We see someone coming in that is in need of our services that needs to be fairly compensated for their injuries for being struck by an individual that was texting and driving, and on the other side, we also saw a family of a teenager that was the defendant in a lawsuit because they were texting and driving."
Texting and driving causes 1.6 million car crashes and 330,000 injuries per year, and 11 teenagers are killed every day due to texting and driving accidents, figures from Warren and Griffin state.
While teens tend to be labeled as the biggest offenders, it affects all age groups, Warren said. He called it an "epidemic."
"We saw that it's bad all the way around and it was not getting any better," he said.
The number of crashes that resulted from distracted driving in Tennessee from 2008-2018 nearly tripled from 404 in 2008 to 1,032 in 2018, according to figures from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
Statewide, crashes due to distracted driving increased 60% from 10,822 in 2008 to 18,166 in 2018.
"I'm not sure people realized the danger when they first started texting and driving," Griffin says.
"You equated impaired driving with drinking and driving, and I don't think people really compared impaired driving with using a phone. Studies show that you can be just as impaired texting and driving."
At Warren and Griffin's office in Dalton, Georgia, they saw a roughly 20% decrease in distracted driving cases after Georgia's hands-free driving law took effect in July 2018. The attorneys started a petition on their website to advocate for a hands-free Tennessee that garnered over 1,000 signatures.
"We knew enough to know hands-free Georgia was working and we immediately started the push for a hands-free Tennessee," Warren said.
You equated impaired driving with drinking and driving, and I don't think people really compared impaired driving with using a phone. Studies show that you can be just as impaired texting and driving.
The new Georgia law led to a dramatic fall in distracted driving crashes, shows an April 2019 study from TrueMotion. TrueMotion is a firm that collects and analyzes phone data for insurance companies.
The firm found that distracted driving dropped 21% in the four months after the law went into effect. The firm also found that the level of distracted driving has remained steady since and hasn't returned to previous rates.
The company looked at distracted driving behaviors for more than 21,000 Georgia drivers for seven months — three months before the law went into effect and four months after it began in July 2018. The study tracked driving behaviors across 37 million miles and 1.2 million hours of driving time.
Every Tuesday, at Warren and Griffin's office at 736 Georgia Avenue in downtown Chattanooga, people can come and take a pledge to not use a phone while driving. Once they take the pledge, they can spin a wheel to win some prizes. The attorneys also hand out free Bluetooth kits for cars.
As personal injury attorneys, the passion to implement hands-free driving in Tennessee and Georgia doesn't exactly align with their business model, but both Warren and Griffin said they consider it a "calling."
"Our calling is to help others and prevent injuries," Warren says, raising his voice to be heard over the shouts and excitement of people winning money on the wheel in the lobby. "Our job is to make sure our client receives fair compensation. We can have it both ways."