At a time when automakers are stuffing new cars with interactive technology that integrates more deeply with smart phones, iPods and other devices, more teen drivers are playing with these gadgets while driving.
Most teens engage in distracted driving even though almost all are aware that it's dangerous, according to a survey of nearly 2,000 male and female drivers 16 to 19 conducted in May by the American Automobile Assn. and Seventeen magazine.
Almost nine in 10 teenage drivers (86%) have driven while distracted, even though 84% say they know they shouldn't, the survey found. More than one-third of the respondents said they had nearly crashed because of their own or someone else's distracted driving.
The survey found that teens who text while operating a motor vehicle sent an average of 23 text messages while driving monthly.
"A quarter of all teens admit to texting behind the wheel," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. "Teen drivers are some of the most vulnerable drivers on the road due to inexperience, and adding cellphones to the mix only compounds the dangers. We're doing everything possible to get the message out to teens that driving while talking or texting on a cellphone is not worth the risk."
Distracted driving is a growing problem on America's roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nearly 6,000 people were killed and more than half a million were injured in crashes involving distracted driving in 2008, according the agency, which is a division of the federal Department of Transportation.
The highest proportion of distracted drivers in fatal crashes were younger than 20.
Distracted drivers are about four times as likely to be involved in crashes as those who are focused exclusively on driving, NHTSA said. Drivers who are texting can be more than 20 times more likely to crash than non-distracted drivers.
"Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for teen drivers and the proliferation of distracted driving among teens is a challenge all of us must face head-on," said Beth Mosher, director of public affairs for AAA. "Because of their lack of driving experience and penchant to take risks, it's imperative that teen drivers — like all drivers — remain focused behind the wheel at all times. "
The Department of Transportation, Seventeen and AAA are trying to persuade teens to change their habits by launching a contest that will run until Sept. 10 to raise awareness among young drivers about the hazards of distracted driving. The contest challenges teens "to develop a catchy, creative anti-distracted driving video to promote safe driving" that they can upload and share with other teens.
The best video will win a $2,000 prize and be featured on Seventeen.com, AAAExchange.com, Distraction.gov and at the Department of Transportation's Distracted Driving Summit on Sept. 21.
More information about the contest can be found at http://www.seventeen.com/twosecond.