Teenagers may actually be less likely to text and drive than their parent…

Teenagers may actually be less likely to text and drive than their parent…

Teenagers may actually be less likely to text and drive than their parents

Most teenagers don’t remember a world without smartphones. They’ve grown up with warnings about the dangers of smartphones and may have taken those lessons to heart.

Nearly 40% of teenage drivers age 14 years and older texted while driving at least once in the month prior, but that alarming figure is lower than several estimates for all adults, according to a new study led by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The study, conducted with researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Ohio State University, crunched data from 35 states in the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Texting while driving varied by state — from 26% in Maryland to 64% in South Dakota. “More teens texted while driving in states with a lower minimum learner’s permit age and in states where a larger percentage of students drove,” the study found. “White teens were more likely to text while driving than students of all other races/ethnicities. Texting while driving prevalence doubled between ages 15 and 16 years, and it continued to increase substantially for ages 17 years and up.”

However, the five states where more than 50% of teen drivers reported texting while driving had a learner’s permit age of 15 years or younger. “The increase in texting while driving at the age when teens can legally begin unsupervised driving was not surprising,” said Motao Zhu, the study’s lead author and principal investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “The earlier teens start driving, the earlier they start texting while driving.”

This tallies with a 2014 survey by AT&T, which found that 43% of teenagers said they texted and drove compared to 49% of all adults. As smartphones became ubiquitous, so too did distracted driving. And yet a 2013 study found that more teens are injured and killed every year due to distracted driving than drunk driving; the researchers said the reason was simple: they don’t drink seven days a week, but they carry their phones seven days a week.

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Cell phone use is estimated to be involved in 26% of all motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Safety Council. But it’s not texting that’s the biggest problem. Only 5% of cell phone-related crashes involve texting, while the other 21% involve drivers talking on handheld or hands-free cell phones. Apple AAPL, +0.24% is taking another approach. It wants to stop drivers from texting in the first place by hanging a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” sign on their iPhone’s iOS 11.

Federal law prohibits train engineers from using cell phones, but there’s no federal ban on car drivers. Some 16 states and the District of Columbia, however, do have bans on handheld cell phone use — including New York, New Jersey and California — and 47 states and D.C. explicitly ban texting (Washington was the first state to ban texting, in 2007). Another 38 states and D.C. ban all cell phone use by novice drivers.

Smartphones are as big a threat to driver safety as alcohol, safety experts say. They advocate a federal ban on all cell phone use while driving — including hands-free devices. Driving while using a cell phone reduces brain activity associated with driving — “spatial processing” that helps drivers remember and make sense of the objects on the street — by 37%, according to a 2008 research paper by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

And talking and texting on phones aren’t the only causes of distracted driving. “Discussions regarding distracted driving center around cell phone use and texting, but distracted driving also includes other activities such as eating, talking to other passengers, or adjusting the radio or climate controls,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This includes checking GPS navigation apps and in-vehicle entertainment systems.

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Quentin Fottrell

Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch's personal-finance editor and The Moneyist columnist for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo.

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