Study: Teen drivers who text are more persistent, harder to catch

knordstrom@newsobserver.comJuly 2, 2012 

North Carolina adopted a cellphone ban for teen drivers in 2006, but a recently published study shows that many teens ignore the law and more are engaging in the hazardous practice of texting and driving.

The results of the study by the Highway Safety Research Center at UNC-Chapel Hill appear in the current issue of Accident Analysis and Prevention. It is based on the observation of 5,000 teen drivers leaving high school parking lots.

State Sen. Stan Bingham, a Republican from Denton and a sponsor of the ban, was disappointed by the findings, but not surprised. He said the law may be redrawn.

“We’ve passed a law that’s impossible to enforce,” he said. “This study will be used to aid future legislation.”

In the UNC study, researchers observed the driving behavior of teens in North Carolina in 2006 and repeated the observations two years later after the cellphone ban was passed. For the study, a researcher was stationed at the exit of a high school parking lot, and noted whether each driver was talking or physically manipulating a phone, presumably texting.

In their observations, overall cellphone use among the teen drivers decreased slightly in the two years since the law passed, 11 percent to 9.7 percent. But the number of texting teen drivers in North Carolina has gone up, about a 40 percent increase between the year of the ban and the researchers’ observations two years later.

Due to the pace of peer review and academic publishing, the study is surfacing now. The frequency of teens texting while driving is probably higher today, said Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, who led the study.

The study is the only one of its kind to observe teen driving and cellphone use in North Carolina. More recent data involve self-reported activity in surveys of a broader range of ages. In 2011, for instance, the Harris Poll reported texting while driving is much more common among younger drivers. About 49 percent of drivers with cellphones under 35 send or read text messages while driving compared to 11 percent of Baby Boomers and less than 1 percent of people over 65, the poll found.

In interviews, teens said texting and driving is widespread despite the cellphone ban and years of driver education instructors stressing the dangers of distracted driving.

“Everyone I know who has their license texts,” said Ure Loop, 15, at student at Green Hope High in Cary. “I know someone who almost got hit by a bus. They were texting.”

“Everyone does it,” echoed Loop’s friend Sydney Gaston, 15, who attends Athens Drive High in Raleigh. “This guy drove me home the other night, and he was texting. Or like on Twitter. Something stupid.”

Ure and Sydney both have learner’s permits. They have only driven with their parents in the car, meaning they haven’t had a chance to break the law. But they constantly witness their friends’ bad habits.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 11 percent of drivers under 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted. Texting in particular creates a crash risk 23 times higher than non-distracted driving, the agency reports.

“With inexperienced drivers texting and driving these torpedoes down the road, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Bingham said

Cellphone carriers are not discouraging the trends. AT&T changed its messaging rates last year. Previously, customers bought bundles of texts and were charged overage fees when they passed their limit. If your bundle was 200 texts, you would be careful not to go over and limit your texting. Now customers have only two options: unlimited texts for $20 or pay 20 cents per text. Verizon offers a similar all-or-nothing deal. The choice is obvious to a thumb-happy teen who might send over a hundred texts per day.

The teens can’t plead ignorance of the ban. Driver education courses have been informing students since the law was passed. And in conjunction with the study, a survey of teens showed most are aware of the law.

“Basically you’re not allowed to have your phone on you. No texting, talking, tweeting. All that good stuff, ” said R.J. Lewis, of Apex High.

The law allows teens to call parents and make emergency calls, but Lewis’s description captures the spirit of the law. The penalty for getting caught is a fine and a six-month delay for eligibility for the next license level.

But few are getting caught. So while teens know about the law in theory, in practice it doesn’t exist to them.

Teens who break the law “don’t care,” said Enloe High student Ashley Sibelink, 16, “but I’m pretty sure if they got caught they’d care a lot.”

It’s an offense that’s not easy to detect. In North Carolina, adult drivers can talk away. If a young driver is talking on the phone, police officers can’t tell the difference between a law-abiding 18-year-old and a law-breaking 17-year-old.

Further, texting is itself a strategy for avoiding a run-in with the law. It’s easier to hide than talking. Goodwin also said some teens may view it as safer. They can type at a red light, put the phone down, and continue composing at the next light.

Breaking the teen cellphone law is a primary offense, meaning it can be the sole reason someone is pulled over. But since it’s hard to detect violators, officers may only catch a teen texting if some other offense is suspected.

“We had these concerns when we passed it; the highway patrol also expressed concern,” Bingham said.

In 2011, the State Highway Patrol issued 22 citations. The Raleigh Police Department issued zero to minors in 2011.

“We’ll come up with a solution; it’s very important we do,” Bingham said. “Our main concern is reducing teen fatalities.”

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among teens of driving age, according to data collected by the Child Fatality Task Force, of which Bingham is a member.

While teen texting is increasing, teens are not solely to blame in the bigger picture.

“It’s not necessarily just a teen thing,” Goodwin said, noting that self-reported texting by adult drivers is increasing.

“If we’re actually worried about teen cellphone use while driving, perhaps adults also need to put the phones down, whether voluntarily or by force. There is some evidence that all-driver cellphone bans work, ” says Goodwin.

Nordstrom: 919-829-8983

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