WASHINGTON – From Jeannie Harrison's perspective, the social lives of most teenagers tend to revolve around their cell phones -- even when they are behind the wheel.
"People don't want to be inaccessible for even 15 minutes driving up the street," said Harrison, 19, a sophomore at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. "They're so used to being accessible all the time."
Targeting inexperienced motorists, several states have passed laws during the past five years restricting cell phone use by teenage drivers.
But an insurance industry study being released Monday that looked at whether teens are ignoring such restrictions contends enforcement and parental influence are just as important as new laws.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studied North Carolina's law, enacted in 2006, which fines motorists under age 18 who are caught using a cell phone.
Researchers who watched as high school students left school found that teenage drivers used their cell phones at about the same rate both before and after the law took effect. In South Carolina, which does not have a similar restriction, cell phone use by teenage drivers was about the same for both periods studied.
A separate phone survey of North Carolina parents and teenagers showed widespread support for their state's law, but more than three in five reported that enforcement was rare or nonexistent.
"Cell phone bans for teen drivers are difficult to enforce," said Anne McCartt, the institute's senior vice president for research and an author of the study. "Drivers with phones to their ears aren't hard to spot, but it's nearly impossible for police officers to see handsfree devices or correctly guess how old drivers are."
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, according to the government's auto safety agency, and teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers.
The institute says 17 states and the District of Columbia have cell phone restrictions in licensing requirements for teen drivers. The National Transportation Safety Board in 2003 recommended that states limit or bar young drivers from using cell phones, leading many states to act.
Harrison, who serves with Students Against Destructive Decisions, an advocacy group focused on highway safety issues, said few of her friends know about West Virginia's law banning cell phone use by novice drivers.
Bill Bronrott, a Maryland state delegate who sponsored a successful bill in 2005 prohibiting rookie drivers under 18 from using cell phones, except to make 911 emergency calls, said a "combination of education and enforcement" was critical. So, too, parental involvement.
Added Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association: "What these kinds of laws do is send the message to the parent more than anything else."
In the North Carolina study, researchers found that 11 percent of teenage drivers observed departing 25 high schools during the two months before the ban took effect were using cell phones. About five months after the ban took effect, during the spring of 2007, nearly 12 percent were observed using phones.
In South Carolina, observers found that 13 percent of high school students departing 18 high schools used cell phones while driving. The rates were consistent during the same two time periods studied in North Carolina.
In the North Carolina phone survey, 95 percent of parents and 74 percent of teenagers supported the restriction. But 71 percent of teens and 60 percent of parents felt that enforcement was rare or nonexistent.
In North Carolina, 37 citations were issued in 2007 by the state highway patrol to teens using a cell phone while operating a vehicle. Twenty-eight citations have been issued in 2008.
Selena Childs, executive director of the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force, said in an e-mail that with many child safety laws in the state, "knowing that it's against the law is enough for many people to choose to comply with a law."
Childs said the state's driver's license system for young drivers has been effective "not so much because of law enforcement/citations, but because parents and teens self-enforce the law, resulting in reduced crashes."
Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said many state laws on cell phones are new, making it difficult to assess their impact. He said more states are considering similar restrictions.
The institute conducted two separate telephone surveys in North Carolina: the first, before the cell phone restriction took effect, was in November 2006 and involved 400 pairs of parents and teenagers; the second, after the law had taken effect, was in April 2007 and involved a different sample of 401 pairs of parents and teenagers. Each survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.