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Thursday, September 20, 2007

New Bill to Stop Teen Drivers Cell Phone Use Being Considered by 12 States

Legislation Already Passed in 15 States and D.C

According to the American Automobile Association, at least 12 states are contemplating bills that would ban teens from using electronic equipment while driving. At least 15 states and the District of Columbia have already passed similar legislation.

Allies of the ban say that teen-specific regulations — which generally revise existing laws that apply to everyone, or supplement provisions to graduated licensing laws for young motorists — lessen driver distraction and save lives. Opponents complain that the ban is another example of government intruding into citizens' private lives — and is a parent's duty, not the state's, to teach students proper driving skills.

Narin Leininger, a 16-year-old high school junior, is aware of the risks of talking on a cell phone or sending text messages while driving. He says he'd only use his phone behind the wheel in an emergency — a flat tire, traffic jam or crash.

But the student at San Francisco's Lowell High School wondered if he ever decided to whip out his phone to chat or text with a friend while steering, could anyone stop him?

"There's no way a cop could see if you're texting under the steering wheel," said Leininger.

California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose daughter turned 16 and began driving last year, has not revealed whether he'd sign the new bill.

Introduced by California Sen. Joe Simitian, the legislation would ban 16- and 17-year-olds from using any electronic device while driving — cell phones, text messaging devices, laptop computers, pagers, walkie-talkies and handheld computers, even those with "hands-free" features. It would take effect in July of next year. (Last year, Schwarzenegger signed legislation that prohibits all drivers from holding a cell phone while driving. The measure takes effect in July 2008, and allows hands-free devices.)

Teens who violate the proposed bill would get a $20 fine for the first offense and a $50 fine for subsequent offenses, but they wouldn't have points taken off their records.

"I introduced this bill for one simple reason — it will save lives," said Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat.

There's been almost no scientific research directly linking texting and car accidents, but anecdotal evidence — and common sense — suggest it's a big distraction.

Last month, police in suburban Phoenix said a text-messaging teen was responsible for a head-on crash that killed two people. While driving in Peoria, Ariz., Ashley D. Miller, 18, was not wearing a seat belt and was texting on her cell phone when her Ford pickup crossed a lane and struck a Chrysler PT Cruiser, killing 40-year-old driver Stacey A. Stubbs.

A head-on wreck in New York's Finger Lakes region this past June killed five teenagers who graduated from high school just five days earlier. The teen's SUV swerved into oncoming traffic, hit a tractor-trailer and burst into flames only seconds after the 17-year-old driver had sent and received text messages.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, New York State Sen. Carl Marcellino introduced a bill banning writing, sending or reading text messages while driving.

"You need two thumbs to use these devices. How do you hold the wheel? You have to take your eyes off the road to see the screen or see the letters. It's terribly dangerous," Marcellino told legislators in the state capitol.

A 2001 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that 16-year-old drivers have a crash rate three times higher than that of 17-year-olds, five times greater than 18-year-olds and almost 10 times greater than drivers ages 30-59.

"Bottom line, this law will most likely save lives — not just teenagers but anyone on the road," said the director of transportation technical consulting services for the Hopkinton, Mass.-based Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, Dave Melton. "Frankly it would behoove all of us to do away with distractions that interfere with decisions we make while driving."

But recently, California Sen. Tom McClintock portrayed the legislation as an attempt to regulate behavior. His 17-year-old daughter missed curfew after a play rehearsal, and McClintock and his wife were pleased that they could reach her on her cell phone.

"It's midnight, she's not home," said McClintock. "We were able to reach her on the cell phone. She was on her way home. She was fine."

The chairman and chief executive of Boston-based Students Against Destructive Decisions, Stephen Wallace, agreed that parents should set the rules. He exhorted adults to talk to kids about safe driving — and parents should be good examples and not use the phone when they're at the wheel.

But he said that family discipline doesn't lessen the need for laws.

"Any regulation in place has merits as a way to reinforce a message that they should receive at home," Wallace said. "The more places they get this message the more they're likely to respond."

Many teens agree.

Minna Shmidt agrees. The 16-year-old got her license in July and never talks or sends messages on her cell phone when she's at the wheel. This lesson was impressed upon her by her father, a retired driver's education teacher.

"I'm a beginning driver — the slightest noise makes me nervous and distracted," said Shmidt, a high school junior. "If you're thinking about your friends and what they're saying, you're not paying attention to the road conditions."

Schools, parents and communities can learn more about driver education and safety at America's Driver License Headquarters Try a Free DMV Practice Test online!

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