PORTLAND, Ore. — The chances that a teenager will be cited for talking on a cell phone while driving are pretty much zero in Oregon, a consequence of the way the law is written and a problem other states may be facing.
Only a handful of tickets have been written in major cities around Oregon because police say the state law that went into effect last year to help prevent accidents is difficult to enforce.
In Portland, police could find no record of any citations so far. It was pretty much the same story in suburban Beaverton, and in Eugene, Medford, Bend and Pendleton.
The law allows police to cite 16- and 17-year-olds only if it is a "secondary violation," meaning some other violation must come first. That makes the law difficult to enforce and drivers appear to be ignoring it.
"It's a swing and a miss as far as we're concerned," said Pendleton police Chief Stuart Roberts, whose officers have not issued a single citation.
Back to old habits
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, only six states have a complete ban on handheld cell phones while driving, but Utah and Washington state make it a secondary violation.
Six other states, including Oregon, make it a secondary violation for teen or "novice" drivers.
Enforcement, however, is tough even when it is a primary violation that allows officers to pull somebody over as soon as they see a driver using a cell phone.
An insurance institute study in North Carolina showed that teen drivers actually used their cell phones more often after that state made it a primary violation under the age of 18.
Age does not seem to be a factor, either.
California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York ban handheld cell phones for drivers of all ages, making it a primary violation.
But the insurance institute found that in New York, the first state with a complete ban, drivers went back to their old habits after the initial crackdown.
"As soon as the publicity died off and it wasn't in the news, handheld cell phone use went back up to the level it was at before," said Russ Rader, institute spokesman.
"So what it comes down to is that, unless there is tough, visible, sustained enforcement, the laws don't have much effect," Rader said.
Goal: reduce accidents
The departing chairman of the Oregon House Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the Oregon law, attorney Greg Macpherson, said the goal was to reduce the number of traffic accidents involving teenagers — the leading cause of death for teens across the nation.
"I still think it's a good idea," Macpherson said. "We shouldn't have our young people, who are just learning to drive, try to do that while talking on a cell phone."
But National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures show that fatal accidents involving teen drivers declined before most of the recent cell phone laws were passed, falling 12 percent from 1997 to 2007, despite an increase in the number of teen drivers.
The agency also notes in an analysis of cell phone laws their effectiveness is uncertain.
Oregon Department of Transportation crash figures for 2007 show that cell phone use was a contributing factor in only 4 of the 411 fatal crashes that year.
Troy Costales, the ODOT safety chief, said cell phone statistics tend to be unreliable because they are generally self-reported, but there is certainly a trend suggesting it is a safety concern not only nationally but internationally.
"It's a constant drumbeat in the news in a lot of places around the world," Costales said.
He noted there was similar concern in the 1930s about the distraction threat posed by introducing radios to cars.
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