By ROBERT TANNER, AP National Writer
There are a few things that the average teenager absolutely must have
in 21st century America -- a license to drive is one, a cell phone is
another. But police officers, parents, and, increasingly, lawmakers
are coming to the conclusion that those essentials are a dangerous mix
when combined with inexperience on the road.
A growing number of states are creating legal barriers to keep young
drivers from using cell phones, even as few ban adults from talking --
at least handsfree -- while driving.
"It's not a silver bullet solution, but it's one piece of a puzzle we
need to put in place if we're serious about eliminating highway
deaths, highway crashes, as the No. 1 cause of death of young
Americans," said Maryland Delegate William Bronrott.
The year began with just two states limiting cell phone use for teen
drivers. But as legislative sessions moved ahead, lawmakers in six
states passed bills to bar all cell phones, handheld or handsfree, for
teenage drivers with learner permits or provisional licenses.
Now, laws in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Tennessee
say young drivers must keep the phone off. Illinois's measure is
waiting for Gov. Rod Blagojevich to sign it into law, but his staff
says he intends to. Maine already bars cell phones for drivers with
provisional licenses up to age 21, and New Jersey bans them for those
drivers at any age.
At least a dozen more states considered similar measures in recent
months and balked, though advocates say they'll be back.
Lawmakers don't necessarily expect teenagers to like it -- and they
"I don't know anybody who says it's a good idea, or it's fair to
single out 16- or 17-year-olds," said Adam Bonefeste, a 17-year-old
from Springfield, Ill. Nearly all his friends have their own cell
phone, and everybody needs to drive for work, school and social life,
"I drive and talk on my cell phone all the time," he said. "I've never
had any problems, never run into anything or got a ticket."
Whether or not they're using cell phones, teenagers are much more
likely than older drivers to get into accidents. At age 16, boys get
into 27 crashes per million miles driven and girls 28 crashes. Those
numbers drop quickly as drivers age. By the time drivers reach the
20-to-24-year-old group, there are eight crashes per million miles for
men, and nine crashes for women, according to the Insurance Institute
for Highway Safety, based on 2001 data.
Those crashes take a deadly toll. The insurance institute says that 32
16-year-olds died per 100,000 drivers in 2003, four times the fatality
rate of the 30-to-59 age group.
Researchers say there is clearly a problem with teenage drivers
becoming easily distracted on the road. Their work has bolstered
efforts to ease teenagers into the driving world, giving them more
time to learn, restricting nighttime driving and barring other teenage
passengers, who sometimes incite dangerous behavior. Now 45 states
have some version of what's called graduated drivers licenses.
But many researchers say convincing evidence is lacking on any link
between cell phone use and accidents -- even with academic studies like
one published last winter that found young motorists talking on cell
phones react as slowly as senior citizens, and are more impaired than
"It's just not clear," said Susan Ferguson, vice president of research
at the insurance institute. The
National Transportation Safety Board and the Governors Highway Safety
Association both endorse bans for cell phone for novice drivers. But
they back off on bans for adult drivers.
State legislators and governors, too, have proved largely reluctant to
limit or ban cell phones for all drivers. New York banned handheld
devices in 2001, and since then only New Jersey in 2004, and the
Connecticut legislature -- this year -- approved a ban. Connecticut's
law is waiting on the governor's signature.
"This is part of an evolution, part of a revolution as we learn more
and more about human factors in driving," said Ellen Engleman Conners,
the chairman designate at the National Transportation Safety
Board. More research is being pursued to shape public policy, but
until then, it makes sense to protect teenagers because their
vulnerability to distractions and accidents is indisputable, she said.
It's easy to pass a law, but harder to change behavior, said Sheriff
Dave Owens in McLean County, Ill. "Just the fact that that becomes law
... is that enough to get people to stop? We have speeding laws in
this country and people routinely speed," he said.
In Maryland, advocates had pushed for years to get tougher
restrictions on teenagers that included many of the elements of
graduated drivers licenses. They had always failed -- until this
year, when a series of fatal crashes sharpened public attention to the
"There were 18 teens killed in about three months," said Bronrott, a
longtime advocate of safe driving rules. "It was a huge wakeup call."
On the Net:
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: http://www.iihs.org
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new