Conference Coverage

Despite laws, almost half of teens text while driving



WASHINGTON – Nearly half of teens reported texting while driving at least once in the past 30 days, according to two analyses of survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And state laws banning texting while driving are having little impact among teen drivers, researchers cautioned.

Physicians "need to discuss this with license-eligible teens, and they need to [help ensure], too, that parents are not [setting an example] by texting while driving," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park, who presented an analysis of the CDC survey data at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.


Experts believe that texting while driving can be even more dangerous than driving while intoxicated.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers, and many experts believe that texting while driving is more dangerous for all drivers than driving while intoxicated. One previous study of adult drivers found that the act of texting while driving raises the risk of a crash 23-fold.

The CDC conducts its national Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey every 2 years to monitor six types of health risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death, disability, and social problems among U.S. youths.

For the first time, the 2011 survey included a question about texting while driving: "During the past 30 days, on how many days did you text or e-mail while driving a car or other vehicle?" Of the nationally representative sample of high school students, approximately 8,500 students responded to the question.

Researchers performed two separate analyses of the CDC survey data – one conducted by CDC officials and published in June in Pediatrics, and another presented by Dr. Adesman at the meeting.

According to the CDC analysis, approximately 45% of respondents reported texting while driving during the 30 days before the survey, and more than one in four of these teens (12% of the total) said they do so everyday. The prevalence of any texting while driving increased with age, from 33% for 16-year-olds to 58% for students aged 18 and older.

Male students also were more likely to report texting while driving (46%) than female students (42%), reported Emily O’Malley Olsen and her associates at the CDC (Pediatrics 2013 [doi:10.1542/peds.2012-3462]).

The analyses also demonstrated that students who text while driving are more likely to engage in several other high-risk behaviors.

Students who engaged in texting while driving were 5.33 times more likely to drive when they had been drinking alcohol than students who did not engage in texting while driving. They were also more likely to not always wear their seatbelts and to ride with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. The prevalence of each risky motor-vehicle behavior increased as the frequency of texting while driving increased.

Dr. Adesman’s study assessed a broader range of high-risk behaviors – not only driving-related behaviors – in examining the association of other behaviors with texting while driving. He and his coinvestigators found that teens who texted while driving were significantly more likely to drink and drive, frequently consume alcohol, use indoor tanning devices, and have unprotected sex.

They also examined the effectiveness of state laws. Teens living in a state with a law that prohibits texting while driving were only slightly less likely to report the practice than teens living in a state without such a law.

"State laws banning texting while driving are not effective," Dr. Adesman said in an interview after the meeting. "The most likely effective intervention would be for parents, with their teens’ consent, to download applications that turn off the texting function while the car is in motion. We have some of this technology available today, and more should be developed."

Physicians can also suggest that teens pledge – in official agreements or "contracts" with their parents – not to text while driving, he said.

The two studies used different criteria for their samples. While the CDC analysis looked at all students 16 years of age and older, Dr. Adesman and his coinvestigators limited their sample to teens who, in their states, were eligible to drive with a full or unrestricted license. The two analyses’ main findings on the prevalence of texting while driving were similar, however, with 49% of males and 45% of females reportedly engaging in the practice.

The new data build on several previous studies that show high rates of texting while driving among teens. In an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety telephone survey in 2010 of approximately 1,200 drivers across the United States, 13% of drivers of all ages, and 43% of drivers aged 18-24 years, reported texting while driving.


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