MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Laws that ban texting while driving are increasingly popular as states try to reduce the number of car crashes. According to the Transportation Department, nearly 6,000 people died in accidents related to distracted driving, in 2008. So six new texting bans go into effect this month - including one in Georgia, where NPR's Kathy Lohr filed this report.
(Soundbite of honking)
KATHY LOHR: On the north side of Atlanta on a sweltering summer morning, stop-and-go traffic creeps by off State Route 400. The heat seems to rise from the pavement as Sergeant Robert Moody, with the Georgia State Patrol, scans for drivers who appear to be texting.
Sergeant ROBERT MOODY (Georgia State Patrol): She's looking down and she's texting with her left hand, and she actually changed lanes, from her right to her left, and - continuing on. That was an obvious violation of this new law.
LOHR: Sergeant Moody says it's easier than you might think to figure out if someone is typing a message behind the wheel. People often weave in and out of lanes. And they drive slower.
Sgt. MOODY: If you're looking down, and you're not paying attention to the road, you may let off the gas and all of a sudden, instead of running 55, 60, you're running 35, 40. So those kind of things, law enforcement can look for. Once we see those violations, why did that violation occur?
LOHR: If there's an accident, drivers' cell phone records could be subpoenaed. As of today, Georgia bans all phone use for drivers under 18, and it's one of 28 states that prohibit text messaging for all drivers.
Mr. BOB DALLAS (Director, Governor's Office of Highway Safety, Georgia): I think a lot of it comes down to common sense.
LOHR: Bob Dallas is director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety in Georgia. He says officers will have a lot of discretion in writing tickets. The penalty here: a $150 fine, and one point assessed against your driver's license. Dallas says lawmakers had a good reason for the stiff fine.
Mr. DALLAS: They did look at some of the other states that hadlow fines or no points, and what they found was that there wasn't significant compliance associated with that. And that's one of the issues. We don't just want to put a law on the books and nobody pay attention to it.
LOHR: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, fines across the country range from as little as $20 to as much as $750 for a violation. Getting people to comply with a new distracted-driving law is a priority, and the focus of a new radio campaign hitting just before the holiday weekend.
(Soundbite of radio ad)
Unidentified Woman: Police are teaming up to crack down on Georgia's deadliest drivers. Cops are on the lookout for drunk drivers and putting the brakes on texting behind the wheel, too.
LOHR: Georgia and other states are looking to places where bans are already in effect, to see how enforcement is working.
Ms. PAM FISCHER (New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety): It takes ongoing outreach and education. It takes that messaging over and over again. And unfortunately for some people, it takes something terrible to happen before they're true believers.
LOHR: Pam Fischer is with the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety. She says officers are writing 10,000 tickets every month.
Ms. FISCHER: The problem is that we have far more folks breaking the law than we have police officers available to write tickets. So we have a huge challenge here.
LOHR: Fischer says that challenge is changing people's attitudes, and that doesn't happen in an instant. In the meantime, there is little data about how well the laws work to reduce crashes.
A�study released this year�by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed cell phone and texting bans in several states, including New York and California, had no impact on accidents.
Many, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, downplayed the results, saying enforcement will make a difference.
Back on the road, Sergeant Moody, with the Georgia State Patrol, continues to note texting violations.
Sgt. MOODY: I do not look at this as an enforcement challenge. I think it will be a learning curve for all involved.
LOHR: Officers in Georgia say they'll give drivers several weeks to get used to the ban on texting, and wait until August to strictly enforce it.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.