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NASHVILLE — Tennessee drivers operating a vehicle while talking on a hand-held cell phone could get slapped with a ticket under a bill that passed a major House panel Tuesday after a rollicking debate and a father's plea for lawmakers to act.

Transportation Committee members' discussions ranged from concerns about "overreaching government" and potential backlash from constituents to proponents arguing about responsibility and public safety.

It was approved on a voice vote after lengthy debate including testimony from Doug Ralls of Brentwood, Tenn., whose 23-year-old son died in 2009 when his car was struck by a distracted driver who lost control of her vehicle while reaching to answer a cell phone.

The bill would make hand-held use of a cell phone while driving a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine.

Drivers would still be able to use hands-free cell phones relying on Bluetooth wireless technology or a phone that is affixed to a secure spot in a vehicle while a driver is using the speaker-phone function.

Restrictions also apply to texting, although a law previously passed already addresses that.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Johnson City, now goes to the House Calendar and Rules Committee, the last potential barrier for bills before proceeding to the House floor for final votes. The Senate companion bill has not yet been acted on.

Ralls said his son, Brian, was "obeying all the laws, not on the phone or anything like that. The woman was driving in a different direction on Interstate 40, lost control of her car and hit Brian's car head on. She later told the troopers she had been reaching for her cell phone to answer it and pick it up to have her conversation and lost control.

"This bill addresses that completely," said Ralls.

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Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, agreed the accident was horrible and voiced sympathy about the tragedy but said, "I think I'm called against making emotional decisions.

"Distracted driving has been with us since they made that first car, whether we're distracted changing a station on the radio, eating a hamburger, putting on makeup, swatting a kid," said Sanderson, noting Tennessee has distracted driver provisions already in statute.

He questioned whether it will lead in the future to lawmakers "passing law after law" on "various specific distractions" and wondered where it would end.

"I cannot support this bill, and I'm sorry," Sanderson added.

Alluding to testimony from Col. Tracy Trott, head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, who had said troopers last year issued 7,500 citations for distracted driving and "due care" issues, Sanderson said he contends "the problem is not really that we have a phone to our ear, the problem is that we have a conversation on the phone."

"Distracted driving is what we're talking about here," Sanderson said. " Not once did they say that talking on a Bluetooth is more distracting or less distracting."

The lawmaker said that while "I get the intent," he sees the bill "as overreaching government trying to legislate common sense, and that's all it is."

Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, an attorney in private practice, told Ralls and family members that "my heart goes out to you."

The lawmaker said he has dealt with traffic cases on any number of occasions and "maybe one out of 1,000 will admit being distracted."

He said when he issues subpoenas he finds and obtains cell phone records and  "one out of three" distracted drivers were holding a cell phone or texting.

Beck said he backed "anything we can do to keep my mother, my daughter, my family safe, no matter if it's a small invasion of your privacy or inconvenience. As Col. Trott said this is grossly undercategorized because no one ever admits they were distracted when they just T-boned you."

The THP's Col. Trott later credited Ralls with passage of the bill.

Trott said distracted driving is "really becoming one of the top issues in traffic safety. A lot of it has to do with cell phone usage in the vehicles. We see it every day riding up and down the freeway."

Committee approval came as somewhat of a surprise, Trott said, noting proponents thought they had a one-vote edge but realized it would be a "tight vote."

Trott said state troopers alone last year issued 7,500 citations based on various types of distracted driving and "due care" issues. He called Holsclaw's measure a "good bill because it would save lives and reduce accidents."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.

This story was updated March 8 at 10:30 p.m. with additional information and a new byline.

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