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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 2 | SPECIAL ISSUE: PHONING WHILE DRIVING | February 27, 2010 Subscribe

Drivers phone and text even at riskiest times

Cruise any road and chances are good you'll see drivers gabbing on hand-held cellphones or thumbing text messages. Are motorists really doing as much electronic multitasking as it seems? The short answer is yes, no matter traffic conditions or weather, a new Institute survey indicates. Another key finding is that drivers don't talk on cellphones as much in states where hand-held phones are outlawed, but they largely ignore bans on texting.

The Institute surveyed 1,219 drivers 18 and older during the last 2 months of 2009 by landline phone or cellphone, asking questions about how much time they talk and text, when and where they use phones, and if they use hands-free or hand-held ones. Researchers also tried to gauge awareness of bans on using hand-held phones and texting.

"Some drivers self-limit phone use by pulling off the road to make or take calls and avoiding phoning when they are in heavy traffic or bad weather," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and an author of the new study. "Most of the drivers told us that they use phones in clear weather. What is surprising is how many drivers reported that they have used cellphones in risky situations."

Overall, 40 percent of drivers reported talking on phones at least a few times per week, and 19 percent talk daily. Thirty-five percent said they never phone while driving. On average drivers said they spent about an hour in the car each day, with about 4 minutes of that time on the phone. This translates into roughly 7 percent of time behind the wheel on the phone, which is much lower than the federal government's latest estimate of 11 percent, based on self-reports and roadside observations.

"People tend not to fess up to behavior that has a negative image, so drivers in our survey may have understated how often they talk on the phone," McCartt says. "It's worth noting, too, that government researchers observed drivers waiting at intersections during the daytime, while our survey estimates driver phone use on all kinds of roads during all hours."

Cellphone use proliferates

There were more than 276 million wireless phone subscribers as of June 2009, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. That's up 42 percent from 194 million in June 2005. Texting is becoming more popular, too. More than 600 billion text messages were sent in 2008, up nearly 4 times from 2006, the association says.

In the Institute survey, drivers reported using phones more on weekdays and during afternoons and evenings. Use rates were 8 percent during these times.

"It makes sense that there's more phoning on weekday afternoons and evenings," McCartt says. "Right after work or school people want to connect with friends and family, and lots of drivers do that once they're in the car."

Men in the survey reported spending slightly more time on the phone than women (7 percent versus 6 percent). This differs from the government's observation that women drivers use cellphones more.

Young drivers phone and text

Younger drivers were more likely to say they use phones than older people. Drivers younger than 30 spent 16 percent of driving time on the phone, compared with 7 percent for drivers 30-59 years old, and just 2.5 percent for drivers 60 and older.

Texting is more common among younger drivers, the survey found. Contrary to popular perceptions, though, the habit isn't entrenched — yet. Drivers who said they text, email, or use the internet or other applications make up a small percentage in the survey. Texting was the most common, with 13 percent of drivers reporting some texting while driving. Thirty-seven percent of drivers 18 to 24 years old said they text at least a few times a month compared with less than 1 percent of drivers 60 and older.

"The 18-24 year-old set is the most plugged-in generation, and the ranks of texting drivers likely will grow as today's tweens and teens get their licenses," McCartt notes.

Phoning in risky situations

Fender-benders frequently happen in stop-and-go traffic, taxing any driver's concentration. No matter. People still pick up the phone. Forty-two percent of drivers surveyed said they used phones when traffic was stop and go, just shy of the 45 percent who used them in free-flowing traffic on high-speed roads, presumably when driving requires less concentration. Even in heavy, fast traffic a quarter of drivers said they have talked on phones.

Bad weather deters some motorists from using phones but not all. Twenty-nine percent of drivers surveyed reported talking on the phone on snowy or wet roads, compared with 61 percent who said they have used phones in clear weather.

Fifty-three percent of drivers surveyed reported using cellphones on trips of more than an hour. Fifty-one percent said they talked at intersections, and 45 percent used cellphones at night.

Business calls aren't taking up most of the airtime, the survey found. Only 20 percent of people who talk on phones while driving reported that more than half of their calls are work-related. A third of men reported mostly business calls compared with 8 percent of women.

Reducing phone use

Hand-held bans appear to dissuade some drivers from using phones at all. Drivers in states with hand-held bans were less likely to say they talk on phones while driving. Forty-four percent of drivers in states with bans reported they don't use phones when driving, compared with 30 percent in states without such laws.

Seven states and the District of Columbia restrict hand-held phones for all drivers, but no state bans hands-free phones for all drivers. Nineteen states and D.C. ban all drivers from texting.

Hand-helds are the norm, and they are frequently used even in states that ban all drivers from using them. Thirty-four percent of drivers in states with hand-held bans for all drivers report using these phones some or all of the time, compared with 57 percent in states without such restrictions.

People who spend a lot of time talking behind the wheel are more likely to go hands-free, the survey found. Thirty percent of drivers who said they use their phones every day when driving reported using hands-free phones all the time. Drivers in states with hand-held bans also were more likely to pick hands-free phones. Twenty-two percent of drivers surveyed in states with hand-held bans reported always talking hands-free, compared with 13 percent in states without bans.

Texting bans are a different story. Among 18-24 year-olds — the group most likely to text — 45 percent reported texting while driving in states that bar the practice, just shy of the 48 percent of drivers who reported texting in states without bans.

"Many drivers we surveyed weren't clear about the laws in their state. And people who knew using hand-held phones or texting was banned frequently told us they didn't think police officers strongly enforce the laws," McCartt says.

Eighteen percent of drivers in states with a universal ban on hand-held phone use either believed there was no law or were unsure. The proportion was even higher (48 percent) among drivers in states with a universal texting ban. Only 29 percent of drivers in states with universal hand-held phone bans who knew about the bans and 22 percent of drivers in states with universal texting bans who were aware of the restrictions felt they were strongly enforced.

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