There are a few things that the average teenager absolutely must have in 21st-century America. A license to drive is one. A cell phone is another.
But police officers, parents, and, increasingly, lawmakers are concluding that those are a dangerous mix when combined with inexperience on the road. A growing number of states are creating legal barriers to keep young drivers from using cell phones, even as few ban adults from talking -- at least hands-free -- while driving.
"It's not a silver-bullet solution, but it's one piece of a puzzle we need to put in place if we're serious about eliminating highway deaths, highway crashes, as the number one cause of death of young Americans," said Maryland Del. William A. Bronrott (D).
The year began with two states limiting cell phone use for teenage drivers. But as legislative sessions moved ahead, lawmakers in six states passed bills to bar all cell phones, handheld or hands-free, for teenage drivers with learner's permits or provisional licenses.
Now, laws in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Tennessee say young drivers must keep the phone off. Illinois's measure is waiting for Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) to sign it into law, but his staff says he intends to do so. Maine already bars cell phones for drivers with provisional licenses up to age 21, and New Jersey bans them for those drivers at any age.
At least a dozen more states considered similar measures in recent months and balked, though advocates say they will be back.
Lawmakers do not necessarily expect teenagers to like it -- and they do not.
"I don't know anybody who says it's a good idea, or it's fair to single out 16- or 17-year-olds," said Adam Bonefeste, 17, of Springfield, Ill. Nearly all his friends have a cell phone, and everybody needs to drive for work, school and social life, he said.
"I drive and talk on my cell phone all the time," he said. "I've never had any problems, never run into anything or got a ticket."
Whether or not they are using cell phones, teenagers are much more likely than older drivers to get into accidents. At age 16, boys get into 27 crashes per million miles driven and girls 28 crashes. Those numbers drop quickly as drivers age. By the time drivers reach the 20-to-24-year-old group, there are eight crashes per million miles for men, and nine crashes for women, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based on 2001 data.
Those crashes take a deadly toll. The insurance institute says that 32 16-year-olds died per 100,000 drivers in 2003, four times the fatality rate of the 30-to-59 age group.
Researchers say there is clearly a problem with teenage drivers becoming easily distracted on the road. Their work has bolstered efforts to ease teenagers into the driving world, giving them more time to learn, restricting nighttime driving and barring other teenage passengers, who sometimes incite dangerous behavior. Now 45 states have some version of what are called graduated driver's licenses.
But many researchers say convincing evidence is lacking on any link between cell phone use and accidents -- even with academic studies such as the one published last winter that found young motorists talking on cell phones react as slowly as senior citizens, and are more impaired than drunk drivers.
"It's just not clear," said Susan Ferguson, vice president of research at the insurance institute. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Governors Highway Safety Association endorse bans for cell phone for novice drivers. But they back off on bans for adult drivers.
State legislators and governors, too, have proved largely reluctant to limit or ban cell phones for all drivers. New York banned handheld devices in 2001, and since then only New Jersey in 2004, and the Connecticut legislature -- this year -- approved a ban. Connecticut's law awaits the governor's signature.
"This is part of an evolution, part of a revolution as we learn more and more about human factors in driving," said Ellen Engleman Conners, the chairman-designate at the National Transportation Safety Board. More research is being pursued to shape public policy, but until then it makes sense to protect teenagers because their vulnerability to distractions and accidents is indisputable, she said.
It is easy to pass a law but harder to change behavior, said Sheriff Dave Owens in McLean County, Ill. "Just the fact that that becomes law . . . is that enough to get people to stop? We have speeding laws in this country, and people routinely speed."
In Maryland, advocates had pushed for years to get tougher restrictions on teenagers that included many of the elements of graduated driver's licenses. They had always failed -- until this year, when a series of fatal crashes sharpened public attention to the problem.
"There were 18 teens killed in about three months," said Bronrott, a longtime advocate of safe-driving rules. "It was a huge wake-up call."