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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Study Reveals Teen Drivers Ignore Cell Phone Restrictions

For Many Teens, Talking and Texting At The Wheel Is A Way of Life

The way Jeannie Harrison sees it, the social lives of most teenagers seems to revolve around their cell phones - even when they are behind the wheel.

Harrison, 19, a sophomore at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, said, "People don't want to be inaccessible for even 15 minutes driving up the street. They're so used to being accessible all the time."

Several states have passed laws during the past five years restricting cell phone use by teenage drivers to target these inexperienced drivers.

A recently released insurance industry study being that examines whether teens are ignoring such restrictions contends enforcement and parental influence are just as important as new laws.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studied North Carolina's law, put into effect in 2006, which fines motorists under age 18 who are apprehended using a cell phone.

Researchers who observed as high school students left school found that teenage drivers used their cell phones at about the same rate both before and after the law took effect. South Carolina does not have a similar restriction, and cell phone use by teenage drivers was about the same for both periods studied.

An independent phone survey of North Carolina parents and teenagers revealed massive support for their state's law, but more than three in five reported that enforcement was rare or did not exist.

Anne McCartt, the institute's senior vice president for research and an author of the study, said, "Cell phone bans for teen drivers are difficult to enforce. Drivers with phones to their ears aren't hard to spot, but it's nearly impossible for police officers to see hands free devices or correctly guess how old drivers are."

According to the government's auto safety agency, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, and teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers.

The Institute says 17 states and the District of Columbia employ cell phone restrictions in licensing requirements for teen drivers. In 2003, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states limit or bar young drivers from using cell phones, prompting many states to act.

Harrison, who is a member of Students Against Destructive Decisions, an advocacy group concentrating on highway safety issues, said few of her friends know about West Virginia's law banning cell phone use by novice drivers.

Bill Bronrott, a Maryland state delegate who sponsored a successful bill in 2005 prohibiting rookie drivers under 18 from using cell phones, except to make 911 emergency calls, said a "combination of education and enforcement" was critical. So is parental involvement.

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, added, "What these kinds of laws do is send the message to the parent more than anything else."

In the North Carolina study, observers found that 11 percent of teenage drivers who were observed to be departing 25 high schools during the two months before the ban took effect were using cell phones. In the spring of 2007, about five months after the ban took effect, nearly 12 percent were observed using phones.

In South Carolina, researchers found that 13 percent of high school students departing 18 high schools used cell phones while driving. The rates were consistent during the same two time periods studied in North Carolina.

In 2007, 37 citations were issued in North Carolina by the state highway patrol to teens using a cell phone while operating a vehicle. In 2008, 28 citations have been issued.

Selena Childs, executive director of the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force, said that concerning many child safety laws in the state, "knowing that it's against the law is enough for many people to choose to comply with a law."

Childs said the state's driver's license system for young drivers has been effective "not so much because of law enforcement and citations, but because parents and teens self-enforce the law, resulting in reduced crashes."

Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said many state laws on cell phones are new, making it difficult to assess their impact. He said more states are considering similar restrictions.

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