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Study: Teen driver cell phone use unaffected by restrictions, despite awareness

In December 2006, North Carolina made it illegal for drivers under the age of 18 to use a cell phone – or any technology associated with a cell phone – while a vehicle is in motion. However, a study by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center’s (HSRC) Center for the Study of Young Drivers has found this restriction had no long-term effect on the behavior of teenage drivers. The study also found many teenage drivers may be shifting from talking on a cell phone to texting.

“The findings are discouraging on two fronts,” said HSRC senior research associate Arthur Goodwin. “Not only has the cell phone restriction been ineffective, but young drivers seem to be exchanging one potentially dangerous behavior – talking on a cell phone while driving – with something substantially more dangerous.”

Between 2006 and 2008, the researchers conducted observations of more than 18,000 teen drivers in North Carolina as well as South Carolina, which did not have a statewide cell phone restriction. In both states, there was a general decrease in cell phone use with no significant differences between the two states. Observers in North Carolina also tracked how teens were using their cell phone. Over that time period, there was a 24 percent decrease in teens talking on a phone while driving and a 39 percent increase in teens operating a cell phone manually (e.g., texting) while driving.

A previous study conducted by HSRC in North Carolina four months after the cell phone restriction was enacted also showed no effect of the cell phone ban. However, in that study the lack of change observed was not surprising since awareness of the restriction among teens was still growing. Now, thanks to information about the law being shared through driver education courses, the North Carolina Drivers Handbook, Department of Motor Vehicle licensing offices and other channels, awareness for the law is higher.

“This increase in awareness of the law is significant because it shows that teens are not following the restriction despite knowing about it,” said Goodwin. “Obviously something more than just passing laws banning cell phone use will be needed if we want to alter this behavior.”

The study’s researchers believe that perceived lack of enforcement may be one factor contributing to the ineffectiveness of the state’s cell phone restriction. They note that further research is needed on the effect of teenage driver cell phone restrictions in other states where there has been a more comprehensive effort to obtain compliance.

The study “Effect of North Carolina’s restriction on teenage driver cell phone use two years after implementation” was recently published in Accident Analysis & Prevention. A link to the previous article is available via the Center for the Study of Young Drivers website.

The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center
730 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Suite 300  |  Campus Box 3430  |  Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3430
Phone: 919.962.2203  |  Fax: 919.962.8710