First it was drinking. Then it was cell phones. Now text-messaging is the latest behind-the-wheel activity lawmakers are trying to curb.
"All of my friends do it," says Sonalie Patel, 17, who lives in Elk Grove Village, Ill., and admits that she too occasionally sends texts despite a ban on cell phone use for drivers under 19 and adults with learners permits. "It's like an epidemic."
Indeed, a Nationwide Insurance survey found that 18% of cell phone owners text and drive and that drivers between the ages of 16 and 30 are the most frequent texters. Young adults have even posted videos of themselves texting while driving on YouTube, and nearly 600 people have joined a Facebook group called "I Text Message People While Driving And I Haven't Crashed Yet!"
Cavalier attitudes aside, texting while driving has been cited as a likely factor in fatal accidents from coast to coast, prompting more than 20 states so far this year to consider banning the activity. Washington, New Jersey, Minnesota and the District of Columbia already prohibit texting while driving. And Louisiana is poised to follow suit, with similar legislation awaiting the governor's signature. On June 16, Alaska's governor signed a law that prohibits drivers from texting or watching videos. (It's still okay, however, to stare at a GPS device and talk on a cell phone.)
But these laws may not do much to curb texting while driving. A texting ban is difficult to enforce because, unlike cell phones that drivers hold up to their ear, texting is often done with the phone held lower down on or propped on drivers' laps. "I have a hard time determining whether or not they are using the speaker phone feature or whether or not they are actually texting," says Christopher Hopf, a police officer in Mendham Borough, N.J.
Given the challenges police face in trying to enforce cell-phone restrictions, it's no wonder that a study released this month by the non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that North Carolina's cell-phone ban for drivers under 18 did not deter them from talking or texting. In fact, cell phone use actually increased slightly after the law took effect on December 1, 2006, from 11% to 11.8% about five months later.
Perhaps most telling, only 100 cell-phone violations were issued in North Carolina to teen drivers in 2007 a detail that may be of interest to California as it gears up for a similar cell-phone ban for teen drivers under 18 that will take effect July 1.
"It's always tougher to enforce a law that is targeted at an age group," says Anne McCartt, the institute's Senior Vice President of Research and author of the North Carolina study. "It can be difficult for enforcement officers to know for sure whether someone is covered by the law."
But the study also found that enforcement is not the only key to success with cell-phone laws. Public perception of enforcement also plays an important role.
"It's not just writing tickets it's publicizing that tickets are being written," says McCartt, who notes the success of the national seat belt enforcement campaign "Click It or Ticket" as an example. "A little bit of enforcement goes a long way if it's publicized."
One state where a lot of public attention is being paid to texting while driving is New York. After several fatal accidents there involving text messaging, State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz says constituents began calling his office to demand action. He is now sponsoring a text message ban in the state assembly; the state senate has already passed a similar bill.
Ortiz admits he tried texting while driving once just to see what it was like. As he expected, his car swerved as he attempted to type and drive. "Let me tell you, I will not do it again," he says.