Anti-Texting Laws Don't Appear To Deter

Thousands of people were killed last year and hundreds of thousands were injured in accidents involving distracted driving. It's now illegal to text and drive in 41 states. But drivers don't seem to be paying attention. (This story originally aired on All Things Considered on Dec. 6, 2013.)

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We all know talking on the phone or texting while driving is dangerous. More than 41 states have laws that make it illegal to text while driving. Most have laws that forbid new drivers from using their cell phones at all. But that doesn't stop drivers of all ages from talking and typing away. In December, reporter Alisa Roth rode along with a New York state trooper to see how the ban is working there. Here's an encore broadcast of her story.

ALISA ROTH, BYLINE: I'm on the highway north of New York City with Clayton Howell, who's a New York State trooper.

CLAYTON HOWELL: Because it was in her right hand, and because I didn't actually physically see the phone, I'm going to give her a break.

ROTH: We're looking for drivers who are texting or using hand-held phones. And the state police has been using unmarked SUVs like this one to try to catch drivers.

HOWELL: You can see down into the car. You know, it's a bird's eye view as opposed to being at the same level.

ROTH: People know it's dangerous to use phones while they drive and they know it's illegal, and they still do it anyway. Scott Adams is an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and he and a colleague looked what happens when states pass texting and driving laws.

SCOTT ADAMS: What we saw was that there was an initial decline in accidents once texting bans were passed. But after a few months, there was no effect.

ROTH: In other words, people stop texting and driving for a little while and then they start doing it again pretty quickly. Adams thinks part of it is that it doesn't really matter much if you get caught. In some states, the police can't even pull you over unless you're doing something else wrong, like not using your turn signal. Or the penalties are just too low. Arthur Goodwin studies distracted driving at the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina. He says drunk driving is a good comparison.

ARTHUR GOODWIN: Decades ago, drunk driving was essentially ignored by the public.

ROTH: And then states started imposing harsher penalties and they made it clear that people who did it would get caught. And now there's this real stigma.

GOODWIN: At some point, society may frown on people who use cell phones while driving just the way we do with drinking and drivers.

ROTH: Back on the highway in New York, Howell, the state trooper, is chasing down those distracted drivers.

HOWELL: See her? Now, she's actually coming into my lane, no directional, engaged in her phone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

HOWELL: Good afternoon, Trooper Howell, New York State police. I stopped you for operating a motor vehicle while using your cell phone. May I see your license and registration, please?

ROTH: The driver is a young woman and she says she'd been talking to her mother. But she was caught talking and driving. And now she has to pay.

HOWELL: I'm going to issue you a citation for operating a motor vehicle while using your mobile phone, OK?

ROTH: The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that at any given time, more than 650,000 people are using their cell phones while they drive. This one just got caught. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Roth in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROTH: This is NPR News.

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