- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO (AP)

Narin Leininger knows about the risks of talking on a cell phone or sending text messages while driving. The 16-year-old high school junior says he would use his phone behind the wheel only in an emergency: a flat tire, traffic jam or crash.

But if he ever decided to whip out his phone to chat or text with a friend while steering, he wondered, could anyone stop him?

“There’s no way a cop could see if you’re texting under the steering wheel,” said Narin, a student at San Francisco’s Lowell High School.

Still, California and 15 other states are considering bills banning teens from using electronic equipment while driving, according to AAA. An additional 13 states and the District have enacted bans.

Supporters say teen-specific regulations — which generally amend existing laws that apply to everyone or add provisions to graduated licensing laws for young motorists — reduce driver distraction and save lives. Opponents say the laws are an example of government meddling into private behavior and that teaching students proper driving skills is a parent’s duty, not the state’s.

California’s bill could land on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk this week. Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican whose daughter turned 16 and began driving last year, hasn’t indicated whether he will sign the legislation.

The legislation, introduced by California state Sen. Joe Simitian, would take effect in July. It would ban 16- and 17-year-olds from using any electronic device while driving — cell phones, text-messaging devices, laptop computers, pagers, walkie-talkies and hand-held computers, even those with “hands-free” features.

Last year, Mr. Schwarzenegger signed a bill that prohibits all drivers from holding a cell phone while driving. That measure, which takes effect in July, allows hands-free devices.

Violators of the proposed teen bill would get a $20 fine for the first offense and a $50 fine for subsequent offenses, but they wouldn’t get points on their records.

“I introduced this bill for one simple reason: It will save lives,” said Mr. Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat.

Little scientific research directly links texting and car accidents, but anecdotal evidence and common sense suggest it is too distracting.

Last month, police in suburban Phoenix blamed a teen’s text-messaging habit for a head-on crash that killed two persons. Ashley D. Miller, 18, wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was texting on her cell phone while driving in Peoria, Ariz., when her Ford pickup crossed a lane and smashed into a Chrysler PT Cruiser, killing driver Stacey A. Stubbs, 40.

In June, a head-on wreck in New York’s Finger Lakes region killed five teenagers who graduated from high school five days earlier. Their sport utility vehicle swerved into oncoming traffic, hit a tractor-trailer and burst into flames.

Although police didn’t conclusively link texting with the deaths, the crash happened moments after the 17-year-old driver had sent and received text messages.

The accident prompted New York state Sen. Carl Marcellino to introduce a bill banning writing, sending or reading text messages while driving.

“You need two thumbs to use these devices. How do you hold the wheel? You have to take your eyes off the road to see the screen or see the letters. It’s terribly dangerous,” the Republican from Syosset told legislators in Albany.

According to a 2001 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 16-year-old drivers have a crash rate three times higher than that of 17-year-olds, five times greater than 18-year-olds and almost 10 times greater than drivers ages 30 to 59.

“Bottom line, this law will most likely save lives — not just teenagers but anyone on the road,” said Dave Melton, director of transportation technical consulting services for the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Hopkinton, Mass.

But last month in Sacramento, Sen. Tom McClintock portrayed the legislation as an attempt to regulate behavior. His 17-year-old daughter recently missed curfew after a play rehearsal, and Mr. McClintock and his wife were happy they could call her.

“It’s midnight; she’s not home,” said Mr. McClintock, a Republican from Thousand Oaks. “We were able to reach her on the cell phone. She was on her way home. She was fine.”

Stephen Wallace, chairman and chief executive of Boston-based Students Against Destructive Decisions, agreed parents should set the rules. He urged adults to talk to youths about safe driving and said parents should be good examples and put down the phone when they are at the wheel.

“Any regulation in place has merits as a way to reinforce a message that they should receive at home,” Mr. Wallace said. “The more places they get this message the more they’re likely to respond.”

Many teens agree.

Minna Shmidt, 16, got her license in July and never talks or sends messages on her cell phone when she is at the wheel. Her father, a retired driver’s education teacher, impressed the lesson upon her.

“I’m a beginning driver — the slightest noise makes me nervous and distracted,” said Minna, a Lowell High junior with braids and braces. “If you’re thinking about your friends and what they’re saying, you’re not paying attention to the road conditions.”

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