One year after New York became the first state to enact a law that bans the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, use rates have returned to the same level as before the law. This is the main finding of a follow-up study by Institute researchers, who previously reported a 50 percent decline in phone use rates in the months immediately following enactment of the law (see "N.Y. ban on hand-held phones persuades many drivers to give them up," Aug. 17, 2002).
Before police started warning violators in November 2001, researchers observed a hand-held phone use rate of 2.3 percent in four areas of the state. Several months after the ban, the rate had dropped to 1.1 percent, a significant decline. However, by March 2003 the rate was 2.1 percent, which isn't significantly different from before the law. Meanwhile, hand-held cell phone use among drivers in Connecticut, where no ban exists, showed a small, statistically nonsignificant increase from 2.9 percent to 3.3 percent over the same time period.
"Comparison with the Connecticut experience suggests phone use among New York drivers still may be 20 percent lower than it would be if the law hadn't been enacted," says Adrian Lund, the Institute's chief operating officer. "Nevertheless, the data show clearly that compliance with the law is eroding."
Senior researcher Anne McCartt adds that "the pattern of initial compliance and then a gradual return to previous behaviors is typical when new traffic laws are introduced. Without enforcement that's well publicized and vigorous, drivers tend to revert to their prior behaviors."
The enactment of the ban in New York drew blanket media attention, which "may have encouraged compliance early on," McCartt says. "But the publicity rapidly dropped off, and so did the compliance."
New York is the only state that bans all motorists from talking on hand-held cell phones while driving. Police can issue $100 tickets to motorists who violate the law. But the study indicates this isn't happening regularly. Only about 2 percent of traffic citations issued in New York between December 2001 and January 2003 were for cell phone use.
In a survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1 in 3 drivers said they use a cell phone during at least some trips — and 1 in 4 said at least half of their trips. The agency reports that on a national basis hand-held phone use while driving is up from 3 percent in 2000 to 4 percent in 2002.
Data tying cell phone use to crashes are scarce, and studies have yielded varying risk estimates. One 1997 study analyzed phone billing records for a sample of Canadian drivers in minor collisions, finding crash risk 4 times higher when drivers were using cell phones (see "Cell phone use may raise collision risk," March 22, 1997). Difficulty in accessing telephone billing records has prevented such a study in the United States.