ATLANTA | More than half of high school seniors admit they text or email while driving - the first federal statistics on how common the dangerous habit is among teens.
An anonymous national survey conducted last year found that 58 percent of high school seniors said they had texted or emailed while driving during the previous month. About 43 percent of high school juniors acknowledged they did the same thing.
"I'm not surprised. I'm not surprised at all," said Vicki Rimasse, a New Jersey woman whose son caused a fender bender earlier this year while texting in traffic. She made him take a safe-driving class after the mishap.
"I felt like an idiot," said her 18-year-old son, Dylan Young.
"It caused me to be a lot more cautious," said the high school senior, although he conceded that he still texts behind the wheel.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the survey results Thursday. Some earlier studies had suggested teen texting while driving was common, though perhaps not quite so high.
Still, the numbers aren't really surprising, said Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington. She studies how teens use technology.
A typical teen sends and receives about 100 text messages a day, and it's the most common way many children communicate with their peers. Even during short car rides it's not uncommon for messages to be coming in and for teens to respond, she said.
"A lot of teens say 'Well, if the car's not moving and I'm at a stoplight or I'm stuck in traffic, that's OK,' " said Ms. Lenhart, who has done focus groups with teens on the topic.
Other teens acknowledge they know it's not safe, but they think it is safer if they hold the phone up so they can see the road and text at the same time, she said.
Also Thursday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called texting and cellphone use "a national epidemic" and laid out a blueprint for stepped-up federal efforts and pressure on states to crack down on distracted driving.
"We need to teach kids, who are the most vulnerable drivers, that texting and driving don't mix," Mr. LaHood said at a news conference in Washington. He pointed to a recent case in which a texting teen driver involved in a fatal accident was ordered jailed for a year.
The Transportation Department is also awarding $2.4 million to Delaware and California for pilot projects to combine more police enforcement with publicity campaigns against distracted driving. Similar pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., were shown to successfully reduce distracted driving, Mr. LaHood said.
The transportation chief called on automakers to support voluntary government guidelines to ensure dashboard technologies increasingly being added to cars won't distract drivers. But he rejected making the guidelines mandatory. Mr. LaHood declined to endorse bans on hands-free phones, saying the department wants to conduct a study of real-world cellphone use by drivers first.
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