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Status Report, Vol. 43, No. 4 | June 9, 2008 Subscribe

Despite prohibition, North Carolina teens still use phones while driving

Teens talk a lot, and they like their cellphones. Some of them especially like to gab while driving, even when they aren't supposed to be phoning or texting. A new Institute study of cellphone use among young drivers in North Carolina found that teens often ignore cellphone bans. The study is the first to examine what teenagers and their parents think of such restrictions. Most parents and teens said they support the state's cellphone ban for teenage drivers but believe it isn't often enforced. Researchers concluded the ban hadn't reduced teen driver cellphone use five months after it took effect.

Phone bans for young drivers are becoming commonplace as concerns mount about the contribution of distractions to teens' elevated crash risk. Young motorists are more likely than older ones to talk on phones while driving (see "Phoning while driving increases year by year," Jan. 28, 2006). Seventeen states and the District of Columbia restrict both hand-held and hands-free phone use by young drivers. Six states and D.C. bar all drivers from using hand-helds.

North Carolina's restriction is part of its graduated licensing system for young beginning drivers. Those younger than age 18 can't use hand-held or hands-free phones or text messaging systems. Penalties include a $25 fine and a 6-month delay in advancing to the next licensing level. Calls to parents, guardians, spouses, medical providers, and emergency services are permitted.

"Most young drivers comply with graduated licensing restrictions such as limits on nighttime driving and passengers, even when enforcement is low," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and an author of the study. "The hope in North Carolina was that the same would hold true for cellphone use, but this wasn't the case. Parents play a big role in compliance with graduated licensing rules. Limiting phone use may be tougher for them since many want their teens to carry phones."

More than 255 million people in the United States have wireless phone subscriptions, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. It's hard to gauge accurately how many drivers use phones, but federal observational data indicate that 745,000 passenger vehicles at any moment during the day are being driven by people using hand-held phones.

Data tying hand-held or hands-free phone use to crashes are scarce, but evidence is accumulating that the practice increases crash risk. A 2005 Institute study of drivers in Western Australia found cellphone users four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. The risk was the same for hand-held and hands-free phone users (see "Using a phone while driving raises the risk of a crash with injuries," July 16, 2005). These findings are consistent with 1997 Canadian research linking driver phone use to a fourfold increase in the risk of a property damage crash (see "Cell phone use may raise collision risk," March 22, 1997).

In North Carolina, observed cellphone use by teen drivers leaving school in the afternoon rose slightly, from 11 percent 1 to 2 months before the law to 12 percent 5 months after it took effect on Dec. 1, 2006. Most drivers were using hand-helds. Nine percent held phones to their ears, while fewer than 1 percent were using hands-free devices. About 2 percent were observed dialing or texting. Cellphone use remained steady at about 13 percent at comparison sites in South Carolina, which doesn't restrict teen drivers' phone use.

In both states, use of cellphones was higher among girls than among boys and higher when teens drove alone in vehicles rather than with friends. For example, 13 percent of female drivers and 9 percent of males were observed using cellphones in North Carolina before the law. Cellphone use was 14 percent among solo drivers and 8 percent among teens with 1 passenger. More SUV drivers than car drivers were viewed using phones.

The study coupled driver observations with telephone surveys of North Carolina parents and their teenage children. After the law took effect, about two-thirds of teens and 39 percent of parents said they know about the cellphone ban. Eighty-eight percent of parents said they restrict their teen drivers' cellphone use, though only 66 percent of teens reported such parental limits. Three-quarters of teens and 95 percent of parents said they approve of the law.

Teenagers surveyed after the law took effect didn't use their phones as much as those surveyed before the law. Fifty-one percent of teen drivers before and 31 percent after said they'd often or sometimes talked on their phones. Most parents and teen drivers agreed that police officers weren't looking for cellphone violators. Only 22 percent of teens and 13 percent of parents believed the ban was enforced fairly often or a lot.

"Cellphone bans for teen drivers are difficult to enforce," McCartt notes. "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."

Absent some better way to enforce them, "cellphone bans for teenage drivers aren't effective, based on what we saw in North Carolina," McCartt adds. "Passage of a law is just a first step. The restrictions need to be well-publicized and enforcement should be highly visible."

Studies of hand-held cellphone bans covering all drivers in New York and the District of Columbia found greater compliance over the longer run in D.C., likely because of tougher enforcement (see "Drivers respond to D.C. ban on handheld phones, but effect may fade," July 16, 2005).

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