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Siew Hoon Lim, NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department, Published August 09 2012

Spotlight on Economics: Are cellphone laws effective in reducing young drivers' fatal accidents?

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among young drivers, despite a decline in traffic fatalities in the U.S. through the past few decades.

In 2009, 5,623 U.S. accident fatalities involved drivers ages 15 to 20.

Although drivers under age 21 are less than 6.5 percent of all licensed drivers in the U.S., they accounted for 11 percent of drivers in fatal accidents and 15 percent of drivers in all motor vehicle accidents in 2009.

Since 1988, every state in the U.S. has maintained 21 as the minimum legal drinking age. In the mid and late 1990s, zero tolerance laws were enacted to prohibit drivers under the age of 21 from operating a vehicle with any positive blood alcohol concentration. As a result, the share of alcohol-related accidents among drivers under the age of 21 dropped from 44 percent in 1982 to 22 percent in 2010.

However, in recent years, distracted driving increasingly has become a serious roadway safety concern and a major factor in crashes.

Cellphone use among young drivers was noted as one of the causes of accidents by state highway safety offices across the U.S.

In 2001, New York became the first state to pass a hand-held cellphone ban for all drivers, regardless of age. As of July 2012, hand-held cellphone use by all drivers is banned in 10 states.

Thirty-two states have cellphone laws targeting only young (teen and novice) drivers, so cellphone use by older drivers is allowed in these states. Go to http://www.iihs.org/laws/cellphonelaws.aspx for more details on the different types of cellphone bans and restrictions.

In a working research paper, Junwook Chi of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and I examined the efficacy of state cellphone laws in reducing nonalcohol- related fatal crashes involving drivers under the age of 21.

Our preliminary results show that hand-held cellphone bans for all drivers reduced young drivers' involvements in nonalcohol-related fatal crashes.

However, the effect of cellphone bans targeting young drivers was insignificant.

We also found that the effect of graduated licensing programs has dissipated in recent years.

Siew Hoon Lim is an assistant professor in the NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department