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As Text-Addicted Teens Take To The Roads, Is More Trouble Ahead?

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Texting while driving

Texting while driving

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Unless we make some big changes in attitudes regarding cellphone use, there's trouble ahead. Why? Teens who are going to be of driving age this year or in the next few years are texting in record numbers.

It's not just a stirring of interest; it's an explosion. On average, teen cellphone users are sending or receiving an almost unbelievable 3,339 text messages per month—eight percent higher than just last year, according to a new Nielsen report.

Teens now texting six times per hour

Despite traffic fatalities at a near record low, we're not doing as well with safety as we could. Enemy number one in this—ask nearly any safety official—is distracted driving. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called distracted driving "an epidemic in America," and it doesn't look, yet, like all the state texting laws phased in over the past two years are making that much of a difference.

More than 20 percent of all crashes in 2009 were related to distraction, with cellphone use playing a prominent role.

Now, getting that busy communications hub to grind to a halt while behind the wheel seems like a tall order. All ages are texting considerably more this year than last, found Nielsen; and of teens, 43 percent say that texting is their primary reason for having a cellphone.

The Nielsen results are based on survey data of more than 3,000 teens, along with monthly bill data from more than 60,000 mobile subscribers.

Middle-age adults talk more than teens but text far less

Curiously, teens no longer live up to the stereotype—for teen girls, especially—of being 'glued to the phone' around the clock. Voice usage is now highest among those age 25 to 44, and according to Nielsen, "only adults over 55 talk less than teens."

Teens age 13-17 text the most (with females this age seeing 4,050 texts per month), with those age 18-24 following (at 1,630 texts per month).

A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study last year suggested that the act of looking away from the road might be the most hazardous aspect. Researchers in that extensive study—with camera-based data from real-world driving—found that the risk of a crash while texting is 23 times higher, due mainly to the driver taking his or her eyes off the road. Dialing itself while driving was nearly three times as risky as simply driving, and talking or listening increased the chances of a crash by 30 to 40 percent.

Texting habits (and texting laws) could be the real danger

Last month, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggested that, after looking at collision claims before and after the enactment of new state rules, that texting laws might actually be increasing crashes—possibly because they don't stop people from texting, but rather cause them to hold the phone even lower, which takes their eyes off the road longer than they would be otherwise.

So how are we going to wrestle cellphones out of their hands? Going hands-free—with Ford's Sync, or any other well-integrated OEM Bluetooth solution that supports text messaging—is a step forward, but with such a volume of texting, it might not make much of a difference. Although some of these systems feature ways to provide automated replies while driving, and block manual texting, the worry is that then teens will simply unpair their phone and manually text.

Inexperienced drivers, text addicts?

What's more, with record numbers of teens opting to forgo driving under graduated licensing programs—instead first getting their licenses when they're 18 or 19—we may have a fresh wave of drivers who are inexperienced behind the wheel but highly experienced with their thumbs and a QWERTY keypad.

When they hit the road, with cellphones of course on board, watch out.

[Nielsen Wire]

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