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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Teen Cell Phone Law Difficult to Enforce

Oregon Police Say Law Mostly Ignored

As a consequence of the way the law is written, the chances that a teenager will be cited for talking on a cell phone while driving in Oregon is pretty much zero. It's a problem other states may be facing, too.

Because the state law that went into effect last year to help prevent accidents is difficult to enforce, only a handful of tickets have been written by police in major cities around Oregon.

Portland police found no record of any citations so far. It was pretty much the same story in suburban Beaverton, Eugene, Medford, Bend and Pendleton, all of who report no citations having been written.

Police are only allowed to cite 16- and 17-year-olds if it is a "secondary violation," which means that another violation must come first. This scenario makes the law difficult to enforce, and drivers seem to be ignoring it.

Pendleton police Chief Stuart Roberts, whose officers have not issued a single citation, said, "It's a swing and a miss as far as we're concerned."

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that only six states have enacted complete ban on handheld cell phones while driving, but Utah and Washington state make it a secondary violation.

Oregon and five other states make it a secondary violation for teen or "novice" drivers.

However, it has proven to be very difficult to enforce the law, even when it is a primary violation that allows officers to pull somebody over when they witness a driver talking on a cell phone.

In North Carolina, an insurance institute study revealed that teen drivers actually used their cell phones more often after that state's lawmakers made it a primary violation under the age of 18.

Nor does age seem to be a factor.

Handheld cell phone usage is a primary violation for drivers of all ages in California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

But according to the insurance institute, in New York, the first state with a complete ban, drivers reverted to their old habits after the initial crackdown.

Institute spokesman Russ Rader said, "As soon as the publicity died off and it wasn't in the news, handheld cell phone use went back up to the level it was at before."

"So what it comes down to is that, unless there is tough, visible, sustained enforcement, the laws don't have much effect," Rader said.

Attorney Greg Macpherson, the departing chairman of the Oregon House Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the Oregon law, said the goal was to reduce the number of teenage traffic accidents, which is the the number one cause of death for teens across the nation.

"I still think it's a good idea," Macpherson said. "We shouldn't have our young people, who are just learning to drive, try to do that while talking on a cell phone."

However, despite an increase in the number of teen drivers, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures show that fatal accidents involving teen drivers declined before most of the recent cell phone laws were passed, falling 12 percent from 1997 to 2007.

In an analysis of cell phone laws, the agency notes their effectiveness is uncertain.

Crash figures for 2007 compiled by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) show that cell phone use was a contributing factor in only 4 of the 411 fatal crashes that year.

ODOT safety chief Troy Costales said cell phone statistics tend to be unreliable because they are usually self-reported, but there is certainly a trend suggesting it is a safety concern both nationally and internationally.

"It's a constant drumbeat in the news in a lot of places around the world," Costales said.

He noted that in the 1930s, there was similar concern about the distraction threat posed by introducing radios to cars.

Is your teen a safe driver? The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has developed a new Teen Injury Prevention course to emphasize driving safety for teenagers. For more information, including a Driver Education Book for Parents, visit

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