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updated 2/4/2004 1:11:05 PM ET 2004-02-04T18:11:05

New York drivers hung up their cell phones for a while when the state banned them three years ago, but are back to using hand-held models at nearly the same rate they were before the ban, a study shows.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety attributed the behavior mostly on a lack of publicity, a possible warning to the other states and cities considering similar bans.

"If you look at the experiences with other laws in highway safety like seat belt and drunk driving laws, what seems to make a difference in the long-term is publicized enforcement," said the institute's Anne McCartt, the study's lead author.

The study appears Wednesday in the journal Injury Prevention.

In reaction, Lynn Rasic, a spokeswoman for Gov. George Pataki, said: "We will continue to work with law enforcement officials to make sure this important law is enforced and people are made aware if its existence."

The institute found the rate of New York drivers chatting on cell phones declined from 2.3 percent before the law went into effect to 1.1 percent in the first few months after the law was passed. By March 2003, a year after the law took full effect, the rate had risen to 2.1 percent.

In 2001, New York became the first state to prohibit drivers from talking on hand-held devices while operating a motor vehicle. Since then, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have passed cell phone bans and a number of other states and cities have considered similar laws.

McCartt said there was a flurry of advertisements during the implementation of the New York ban, but publicity has since dwindled. She also said that while cell phone citations made up 2 percent of all traffic violations in 2002, there was no targeted enforcement such as seat belt checkpoints to ticket drivers who ignore the law.

Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, a Democrat who fought to pass the ban, questioned the study's methods, but agreed that the state should do more to promote the law, such as putting signs on all highways telling people not to drive while using a hand-held cell phone.

Ortiz on Tuesday announced legislation to create a toll-free phone line for motorists and pedestrians to report drivers violating the ban, which carries a fine up to $100.

Researchers studied about 50,000 drivers in Albany, Binghamton, Kingston and Spring Valley, and 28,000 drivers in Connecticut, which does not have a cell phone ban. They studied the drivers at intersections of heavily traveled roads throughout the day on a Thursday or Friday.

They found that drivers in New York cut their cell phone use right after the law took effect, but increased a year later. There was no change in the rate of Connecticut drivers talking on cell phones. In Connecticut, 2.9 percent of drivers in the study used a hand-held cell phone.

There was no significant difference in cell phone use by the driver's gender, age or vehicle driven.

The study did not address the effect of the cell phone ban on car crashes or related injuries. But a 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine said the hand-held phones posed about as much of a problem for drivers as drunken driving. The study found the chance of an accident was four times greater when using a hand-held cell phone.

New York's statewide ban began in November 2001, but drivers caught using hand-held cell phones were issued warnings during the first month. Until February 2002, violators had their tickets dismissed if they gave the judge a receipt showing they bought a hands-free cell phone system. The legislation does not address the issue of dialing while driving.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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