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A new study reveals that the North Carolina ban on texting while driving is failing, due to teenagers who are ignoring the law.

In 2005, North Carolina enacted a cell phone ban for teenage drivers. Now, researchers from the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have concluded that teens simply are ignoring the law. Their report, which was published recently in the academic journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, is based on observing the behavior of 5,000 teen drivers as they left high school parking lots.

The researchers found there was a slight decrease in texting immediately after the ban was enacted, but that teen texting while driving had increased by 40 percent by 2008. Although the researchers collected no data after that year, Arthur Goodwin—the lead investigator for the study and a senior research associate at the Highway Safety Research Center—told reporters that the rate of cellphone use and texting by teen drivers probably is still higher today.

Safety is Compromised

A recent AT&T survey of teen attitudes found that 43 percent of teen drivers admitted to texting while driving, even though almost all of them—97 percent—admitted that the practice is dangerous. They’re certainly right about the last part. The U.S. Department of Transportation says that over 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving traffic accidents in 2010. The specific impact of texting while driving is immense: “Text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted,” according to the Transportation Department’s website devoted to distracted-driving abatement.

So, why is the North Carolina initiative falling flat? State Senator Stan Bingham, who was one of the original sponsors of the bill to ban teenage texting, told reporters that the law is conceptually flawed and may need to be revised. “We’ve passed a law that’s impossible to enforce,” he said. “This study will be used to aid future legislation.”

Although cell phone use by a teenage driver is a primary offense—which means a vehicle can be stopped and a citation issued for a texting offense alone—the law is rarely applied. The State Highway Patrol issued only 22 citations for the offense in 2011. One problem is that the law applies only to teenagers under age 18. When a police officer observes a texting incident, it’s not immediately evident whether the driver is so young that the law applies.

The state government in Raleigh does not have the appetite to expand the law to ban texting for all age groups, even though safety considerations would seem to indicate that as the safest course. As concerned citizens and North Carolina auto accident attorneys, we can only hope that eventually the message gets through to teens that they should not do something they know to be unsafe. Like learning to drive a car, behaving responsibly is part of the transition to adulthood.