A third of teens say they’ve texted while driving

A new study says teen girls and boys "are equally likely to report texting behind the wheel," and that 48 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 say they have been in a car when the driver was texting.
A new study says teen girls and boys "are equally likely to report texting behind the wheel," and that 48 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 say they have been in a car when the driver was texting.TODAY

A third of teens ages 16 and 17 say they have texted while driving and 48 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 say they have been in a car when the driver was texting, according to a new survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

While those findings may not surprise some, Pew senior research specialist Amanda Lenhart said she was surprised "to hear (from teens) about how it’s often parents or other adults who are doing the texting or talking and driving, and how for many teens, this is scary or worrisome behavior."

For its Teens and Distracted Driving study, Pew surveyed 800 teens ages 12 to 17 between June and September. The non-partisan organization also conducted nine focus groups with 74 additional teens in the cities of Ann Arbor, Mich., Denver, Atlanta and New York between June and October, in conjunction with the University of Michigan.

"Much of the public discussion around these behaviors has focused on teens as young, inexperienced drivers, but some of the adults in these young peoples' lives are clearly not setting the best example either," said Mary Madden, Pew senior research specialist who also worked on the survey.

"Teens spoke not only of adults texting at the wheel, but also fumbling with GPS devices and being distracted because they're talking on the phone constantly," she said. "And the reactions from the teens we spoke with ranged from being really scared by these behaviors to feeling as though it wasn't a big deal."

'Drives like he's drunk'
One teen boy quoted in the study said his dad "drives like he's drunk. His phone is just like sitting right in front of his face, and he puts his knees on the bottom of the steering wheel and tries to text."

Another boy, a middle-school student, was asked how often he is in "moving vehicle when the driver sends a text message." His answer? "All the time. My mom, sister or brother will sit behind the wheel the whole time and just text away."

One high-school student said "if" he texts when he drives, "I usually try to keep the phone up near the windshield, so if someone is braking in front of me or stops short, I'm not going to be looking down and hit them."

A more daring teen driver said he thinks "it's fine" to text and drive, and that he wears sunglasses while doing it "so the cops don't see" his eyes looking down at the phone screen. 

But another teen, who espouses a zero-tolerance texting policy, said he will "snatch the phone" out of drivers' hands if they text, telling them, "Don't be driving in the car with me and doing that. ... I want to live until the end of this car ride."

Increased attention, pressure
Pew's survey results come as increased public attention is being focused on the perils of texting and driving. Among the most notorious accidents tied to the two activities was a Los Angeles-area train crash last year involving a train engineer who was texting at the time of the collision. He was among the 25 people killed; at least 130 were injured.

Six months ago, Massachusetts officials banned nearly all mass-transit drivers in Boston from using or even carrying cell phones after a text-messaging trolley driver caused a crash that injured nearly 50 people.

One of the first definitive studies about texting and driving was released in August by the Transportation Institute at Virginia Tech, which said that the risk of an accident was four times greater for a driver typing out a text message than for a driver dialing a cell phone, and is more than 23 times greater than for a driver who wasn’t distracted by a phone at all.

Ban for federal workers
Federal transportation officials, who held a conference on distracted driving in September, said that 5,870 people were killed and 515,000 were injured last year in crashes where at least one form of driver distraction was reported. Driver distraction was involved in 16 percent of all fatal crashes in 2008 and was more prevalent among young drivers, officials said.

President Barack Obama has since issued an executive order banning all federal workers from texting while driving on government business, driving government vehicles or using government equipment. And federal officials will attempt to ban text messaging by interstate bus drivers and truckers, and push states to pass their own laws against driving while distracted.

By January, 19 states and the District of Columbia will have enacted total bans on text messaging while driving. Some states ban it under some circumstances.

Text messaging has skyrocketed in the past few years. More than 1 trillion text messages were sent in 2008 in the United States, compared to 363 billion texts sent in 2007, according to CTIA, the wireless industry trade group.

And it's not just teens who are texting. When Pew surveyed adult cell phone owners in 2006, 35 percent of them said they used text messaging. By April 2009, that percentage nearly doubled to 65 percent, Pew said.

"What we have found not just in this study, but in earlier studies of teens and adults, is that the lure of being able to use technology to multitask in what is otherwise considered to be idle time is very strong," said Pew's Madden.

"As a society, we have come to value quick and timely responses to many kinds of messages —whether that's via e-mail, Twitter or text messaging," she said.

A need to 'undo'
Convincing adults and teens that “they really should wait to respond” to text messages while they’re driving means doing a major “undo” of “a lot of habits that are now deeply ingrained in the rhythms of our daily life,” Madden said.

"In that sense, the burden is also on those at the other end of the phone to be patient and realize that drivers need to respond quickly to what's happening on the road, rather than what's happening on their mobile devices."

Among other findings from the Pew survey:

  • 52 percent of teens ages 16 and 17 who have cell phones say they have talked on their phones while driving.
  • 34 percent of teens ages 16 and 17 who text say they have done so while driving.
  • 48 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 say they have been in a car when the driver was texting.
  • 40 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 say they have been in a car when the driver "used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger."
  • 75 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 have a cell phone, and 66 percent of them send or receive text messages.

'Need to report' whereabouts
Boys and girls are "equally likely to report texting behind the wheel," Pew said, and while a third say they do so, "texting at the wheel is less common than having a conversation on the phone while driving." Pew did not further ask whether that driving and talking on the phone was being done hands-free.

The teens in the focus groups had various reasons for texting and driving at the same time, Pew said, including "the need to report their whereabouts to friends and parents, getting directions and flirting with significant others."

Some teens "felt as though they could safely manage a quick exchange of texts while the car was stopped. One high-school-aged boy shared that he would text 'only at a stop sign or light, but if it's a call, they have to wait or I'll hand it to my brother or whoever is next to me.' "