A new traffic safety study suggests that North Carolina teenagers have not paid much attention to a state law that bans cell phone use by drivers under 18.
The ban is part of the state's graduated licensing program, designed to limit distractions and risky behavior that can get young drivers into trouble.
In spring 2007, five months after the law took effect in December 2006, researchers saw teen drivers talking on their phones at about the same frequency as in fall 2006, before the ban was implemented.
“It looks like there wasn't really any change in cell phone use after this restriction took effect,” said Robert D. Foss, a senior research scientist with the Highway Safety Research Center at UNC Chapel Hill.
“Using a cell phone while driving is risky for anybody,” Foss said in an interview. “And young teens have a very high crash risk, because they're still learning to drive in the first couple of years. So they don't need to be distracted by talking on the phone.”
The study was conducted by the UNC center and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Va. Researchers parked outside 25 high schools and watched as teens drove away in the afternoon to see how many were talking on their phones.
In October 2006, 11 percent of the teens were talking on their phones as they drove away from school. In April 2007 the rate was 11.8 percent, a difference that was not statistically significant, Foss said.
The researchers also quizzed teens and parents about the law in before-and-after telephone interviews.
Teens interviewed a few months after the law took effect were more likely than their parents to know about it:
64 percent of teens were aware of the ban, compared to 39 percent of parents. Asked whether they approved of the ban, young drivers were less likely (74 percent) than their parents (95 percent) to say it was a good idea.
Foss acknowledged that researchers could not be sure of the statistics they logged while watching young drivers leave high school parking lots.
They didn't know how many of the drivers were under 18, and they didn't know how many of them were making after-school phone calls to their parents – an exception allowed under the state law.
It's not surprising to find that teen drivers haven't stopped using their cell phones, Foss said. The 2006 law has not been widely publicized. Police enforcement also is sporadic, because officers, like the UNC researchers, can't be sure whether a cell phone-using driver is 18 or younger.