Survey finds adult drivers use cell phones as much as teens

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A new survey on cell-phone distraction while driving finds that adult motorists are just as likely as teens to text behind the wheel, and even more likely to talk on their cell phones.

The survey conducted by the Pew Internet Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project involved 2,252 American adults, 1,917 of whom owned cell phones and 1,189 of whom used text messaging. Nearly half (47%) of adults who text said they had done so while driving; that compares to 34% of texting teens ages 16-17 who said in a September 2009 survey they had texted while driving. Worse, 75% of cell phone-owning adults said in the current survey that they talked on their phone while driving; in the previous survey of teenagers, 52% of reported talking while driving.

Extrapolated to the general population, the findings suggest that 27% of adults and 26% of teens send or read texts behind the wheel, while 61% of adults and 43% of teens talk on their cell phones.

The dangers of distracted driving are well known: a 2009 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of truck drivers found that the risk of a crash was 23 times higher when drivers texted compared with when they did not text. Other studies have shown that people who talk on their cell phones while driving are four times more likely to crash as motorists who stay off the phone.

According to the Pew study, 28 states now ban texting while driving; the same number ban all cell-phone use by novice drivers. Seven states and the District of Columbia ban all handheld cell use by drivers. Still, federal statistics estimate that at any given time, about 11% of drivers, or 2 million people, are talking on their cell phones in the car.

When polled, many drivers say they understand the risks of using a cell phone while driving, but do it anyway. A 2009 poll of 2,501 U.S. adults by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 87% said text messaging or e-mailing while driving posed a very serious threat to their safety; 90% said the same thing about drunk driving. Yet more than two-thirds of respondents said they had talked on a cell phone and 21% said they had texted or emailed while driving in the previous month.

Why the knowingly reckless behavior? People say they feel compelled to respond to matters regarding work or school. Others say they need to stay connected socially.

“The temptation to stay connected and multitask in what is otherwise seen as idle time is very strong,” said Mary Madden, a senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center and an author of the new study, in an email. “Many of us assume that using a cell phone to text or talk isn’t all that different from taking a moment to adjust the radio dial or have a conversation with someone in the car. However, one point that is often overlooked in discussions of this issue is that it’s about more than just keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. When you’re in conversation with someone outside the car — whether texting or talking — it reduces your situational awareness which is so essential to having a quick reaction time to hazards on the road.”

Other findings from the Pew Internet survey:

Those in the Millennial generation (ages 18-33) are more likely than any other age group to report texting while driving. While 59% of texting Millennials say they have sent or read messages at the wheel, 50% of text-using Gen Xers (ages 34-45) and 29% of texting Baby Boomers (ages 46-64) report the same.

Eight in 10 cell-using Millennials say they have talked on their mobile phones while driving. However, Gen X stands out as the group most likely to chat at the wheel when compared with older generations. While close to nine in 10 (86%) Gen Xers who own cell phones talk while driving, just 73% of Boomer cell owners and 50% of those age 65 and older say they talk on their phones while at the wheel.

Parents are more likely than non-parents to say they have talked on a cell phone while driving; 82% of cell-owning parents report this, compared with 72% of non-parents.

Of the 82% of American adults who own cell phones, fully 17% say they have bumped into another person or an object because they were distracted by talking or texting on their mobile phones. That amounts to 14% of all American adults who have been so engrossed in talking, texting or otherwise using their cell phones that they bumped into something or someone.

Read the entire survey here.