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'd only use his phone behind the wheel 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 Leininger, 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 the American Automobile Association. Another 13 states and the District of Columbia have passed 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 that they're another example of government meddling into citizens' 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. Schwarzenegger, whose daughter turned 16 and began driving last year, hasn't indicated whether he'd sign it.
The legislation, introduced by California state Sen. Joe Simitian, would take effect next 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 handheld computers, even those with "hands-free" features. (Last year, Schwarzenegger signed a bill that prohibits all drivers from holding a cell phone while driving. The measure, which takes effect in July 2008, 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 Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat.
Evidence of distraction
There's been little scientific research directly linking texting and car accidents, but anecdotal evidence — and common sense — suggest it's too distracting.
Last month, police in suburban Phoenix blamed a teen's text-messaging habit for a head-on crash that killed two people. 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 40-year-old driver Stacey A. Stubbs.
In June, a head-on wreck in New York's Finger Lakes region killed five teenagers who graduated from high school five days earlier. Although police didn't conclusively link texting with the deaths, the crash happened only moments before the 17-year-old driver had sent and received text messages.
The accident — in which the teen's SUV swerved into oncoming traffic, hit a tractor-trailer and burst into flames — 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 30-59.
"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 Hopkinton, Mass.-based Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. "Frankly it would behoove all of us to do away with distractions that interfere with decisions we make while driving."
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 McClintock and his wife were happy they could call her.
"It's midnight, she's not home," said McClintock, a Republican from Thousand Oaks, Calif. "We were able to reach her on the cell phone. She was on her way home. She was fine."
Reinforcing the message
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 kids about safe driving — and parents should be good examples and put down the phone when they're at the wheel.
But family discipline doesn't mitigate the need for laws, he said.
"Any regulation in place has merits as a way to reinforce a message that they should receive at home," 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's at the wheel — a lesson impressed upon her by her dad, a retired driver's education teacher.
"I'm a beginning driver — the slightest noise makes me nervous and distracted," said Shmidt, 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."