JOHN YDSTIE, host:
These days, it seems like almost everybody old enough to dial has a cell phone. And studies show that three out of four people are using them in cars.
Five states and the District of Columbia have banned the use of handheld phones while driving. But is such a law enforceable anymore? The answer may be found in New York, which is the first state to clamp down on driving and dialing. Six years after the law was passed, Craig Miller decided to see if it's working.
(Soundbite of police car)
CRAIG MILLER: Even with flashing lights and a siren, Joe Claybaugh finds it hard to get the drivers' attention these days.
Mr. JOE CLAYBAUGH (Traffic Enforcement Officer): He's paying attention.
MILLER: Claybaugh is a traffic enforcement officer in Camillus, New York, a suburb of Syracuse. Today, he's looking for cell phone violators, and he assures me it won't take long to find one.
Mr. CLAYBAUGH: Every second car - you'll see when we get up here. It's unbelievable.
MILLER: Sure enough, we're soon in pursuit of a digital desperado. As it turns out, Joanne Spoto-Decker, a county employee, is a bit desperate.
Ms. JOANNE SPOTO-DECKER (County Employee): My phone isn't Bluetooth compatible, and I only have one headset, which my husband has. But it was probably not a good thing to do. It wasn't a safe thing to do. It wasn't just - it just wasn't a safe thing to do.
MILLER: While this driver at least agrees with the law, many appear to ignore it, despite the $100 fine.
(Soundbite of car starting)
Miller: Tom Sherman spends his days on the roads around Syracuse, driving from job to job as a home inspector. His teal green Chevy pickup is his office.
Mr. TOM SHERMAN (Home Inspector): We might come out to the vehicle and find 11, 12 phone calls we have to return. So we have to choose between either doing business or following the law, which basically is pretty much ignored by everybody else also. It's kind of looked they're like a jaywalking.
MILLER: One study by the insurance industry found that while phone use dipped by about half right after New York's law went into effect in 2001, within a year it had bounced right back.
Do you see a lot of people when you're driving around with phones?
Mr. SHERMAN: Always. And if I'm not speaking on my phone, I'm always complaining about them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHERMAN: I would say probably - oh, is that (unintelligible)...
MILLER: Even if it is, car phone crackdowns are rare. For example, Camillus, a town of about 23,000, has been more aggressive than most at enforcing the law, but the police department typically has just one officer on the road assigned specifically to traffic enforcement. Most departments just don't have the manpower and budget to go after cell phone violators.
And there's another problem. Even traffic enforcement officer Joe Claybaugh thinks the target is too narrow.
Mr. CLAYBAUGH: I hate it just being a cell phone. I'd like to see it distracted driving in general. Saw a guy up at the Four Corners down here about a month ago shaving - (makes electric shaver sound) - funny as hell.
MILLER: New York statistics from 2005 attribute less than one percent of traffic accidents directly to cell phone usage. But nearly a quarter were noted as driver inattention or distraction.
As technology accelerates, so will the battle for the eyes and hands of drivers. A survey done this year by Zogby International revealed that two-thirds of drivers 18 to 24 are reading and typing text messages while they're at the wheel.
For NPR News, I'm Craig Miller.
(Soundbite of siren)
Mr. CLAYBAUGH: Here we go again. Now I'm looking in his rearview mirror. He got me.