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America's texting-and-driving problem isn't getting better, study reveals

Driving texting
A driver uses his smart phone while in traffic in Encinitas, California December 10, 2009.
A driver uses his smartphone while in traffic in Encinitas, California.Mike Blake / Reuters file

At any moment on a regular weekday in 2011, about 660,000 people across the U.S. were sitting in the drivers seat and talking on their cell phones. Twice that number were engaging with their mobile device in some way, checking calendar appointments perhaps, replying to email or planning a route on their maps app.

The new numbers come from the most recent National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) conducted by a wing of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This study also shows that texting-and-driving stats haven't dipped since 2010, and some trends, like young drivers who use cell phones, seem to be on the rise.

In the new study, women were more likely than men to reach for their cell phones while driving. As expected, young adults and teens, more than folks 30 and older, were most likely to be texting or checking email while at the wheel.

(Oddly, in a smaller, AT&T-commissioned survey of teenage and adult drivers this year, more adults than teens admitted to texting or checking their email while driving.)

To get the new numbers, data collectors were stationed at 1,356 locations around the country, and recorded the behavior of 38,215 drivers. They made notes of drivers talking while holding a phone, texting, perhaps checking email, and also if they were speaking on very visible bluetooth headset or headphones. This data was then statistically extrapolated to estimate how many people across the country, not just in those locations, are probably fiddling with their map apps or calendar appointments when they ought to be looking at the road.

The nasty habit of texting and driving is much worse in the U.S. than several European countries. American drivers admitted to texting while driving far more frequently than drivers in the U.K., France, Spain and others, according to a study published in March this year.

But even if American drivers can't shake the habit, they seem to recognize that not touching their devices while at the wheel is a good thing. A 2012 NHTSA survey of drivers revealed that 74 percent of them support bans on phones while driving—if using it needed you to hold it — and 94 percent supported banning texting in particular. They even backed fines for distracted driving, starting at $200 and getting higher, depending on the age surveyed.

In 10 U.S. states, it is illegal to use your cell phone while driving, and in 39 states, texting while driving is banned. Recently, a California court ruled that it was unacceptable to use any app — including maps apps — while driving unless they are hands-free.

Electronics are part of the reason drivers are distracted on the road, but they aren't the only problem. When it comes to car crashes, regular daydreaming — not cell phones or GPS devices — was singled out as the leading cause of fatal car crashes in the U.S. Drivers who were "lost in thought" were the reason behind 62 percent of 65,000 accidents surveyed, according to research by the Erie Insurance Group.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.