Oregon Ban on Teen Drivers’ Cell Phone Use Proves Ineffective

Published March 1, 2009

An Oregon law forbidding teenagers from talking on phones while driving may not be as effective as legislators had hoped.

Pendelton, Oregon police chief Stuart Roberts told reporters the new law was a “swing and a miss,” and his office has yet to issue a single citation since the law went into effect last year. The pattern in Pendelton is found across the state, according to law enforcement agencies.

Flaws in the Law

Experts say the law is just not an effective way to get teens to be safer on the road. Police are allowed to cite underage drivers for talking on the phone only as a “secondary violation,” meaning only if the individual is being cited for another violation at the same time.

Oregon’s experience follows a broader trend across the nation. Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said cell phone bans in general have not been very effective.

“We did a study in North Carolina and found that observed cell phone use among teen drivers actually inched up after the law took effect,” Rader said. “In subsequent surveys of teenagers, we found that while most teens were aware of the law, very few of them thought it was being enforced heavily.”

And when a law exists without being enforced, Rader said, it creates contempt for the law.

Enforcement Problems

The Oregon teen cell phone ban creates several enforcement problems, experts say. If the law is to be effective, police must commit to “tough, visible and sustained enforcement,” Rader said.

Studies show drivers using a cell phone are four times more likely to get into a car accident and injure themselves. But banning cell phone use amounts to legislating a symptom of a larger problem—reckless driving.

“We know from research into other kinds of traffic safety laws that enforcement is critical,” Rader said. “If drivers don’t believe they are going to be ticketed, they are unlikely to change their behavior.”

Drunk Driving Analogy

Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, argues cell phone laws have the same rationale as drunken driving laws. He said drivers using cell phones to talk or text risk not only harming themselves but also other drivers who had no choice in the matter.

“You’re taking everyone else’s [lives] in your hand as well,” Zuck said. “It becomes part of a social contract.”

Even so, Zuck said personal liability concerns in the private sector are a more effective enforcement mechanism for safe driving than banning particular activities.

“You start to self-police because you could have your license taken away, your insurance taken away,” Zuck said. “It allows for differential treatment of those who are more careless drivers.”

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.