Teens, cars, cell phones don't mix, senators say

But the future is uncertain for the bill that affects young people just learning to drive.

Published April 5, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Tiffany Wall was sitting next to her instructor in a driver's ed car Tuesday when her hot pink cell phone suddenly buzzed.

Tiffany ignored it.

Had it been her mother, she would have answered it. And probably gotten a stern warning.

"Are you crazy, do you want to get in a car accident?" Tiffany said, mimicking her mother.

Wall, who has been driving with a learner's permit since January, is among many Tampa Bay teenagers who say responsible younger drivers should be able to talk on their cell phones while driving.

But some state lawmakers want to put a stop to the trend.

The Senate Transportation Committee this week unanimously approved a bill to prohibit those with learner's permits from talking on cell phones while driving.

The bill faces an uncertain future. It is headed to the Senate floor, but does not have a House sponsor.

But it already has opponents.

"It's just another reason to pull us over," said Paige Flanagan, 15, of St. Petersburg, who drives with a learner's permit.

But those who favor such legislation - including Flanagan's father, Steve, a high school driving instructor - point to studies that show the youngest drivers have the highest crash rates.

Drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"The maturity level is a problem," said Jim Mewha, who teaches driver's education with Flanagan at St. Petersburg High School. "Kids this age think they're invincible."

The most common, and dangerous, distraction for younger drivers is young passengers, Mewha said. Add cell phones and the risk of an accident becomes even greater, he said.

Drivers with learner's permits must always be accompanied by a licensed driver at least 21 years old in the front passenger seat.

Julia Lippe, 15, of Tampa, received her learner's permit in February. She doesn't pay attention too much when she's on her cell phone, she said, adding, "Talking on my cell phone while driving would only make it worse."

The use of cell phones by young drivers is growing. Drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 increased their talking on cell phones by 60 percent between 2002 and 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board added legislation prohibiting people with learner's permits from using cell phones to its list of "most wanted transportation safety improvements."

Ten other states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers with learner's permits from using cell phones while driving, said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

"It's good common sense. New drivers are the most likely to crash and young drivers tend to be rather addicted to their cell phones," he said. "We need to be clear that driving is a very intense task, and it requires full attention."

But some teenagers feel singled out.

"They should go all the way," said Stephen Malone, 15, of Tampa who received his learner's permit in February. "It's not just kids that crash, but adults do too."

State Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, who sponsored the bill, said it focuses on people with learner's permits because it would be too difficult to enforce such a ban for all drivers.

"We can at least limit the most inexperienced of drivers from mixing the attention of a cell phone with driving," he said. "Hopefully they would develop good habits while they're learning."

--Times staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report.