Americans overwhelmingly think texting while driving is dangerous, but about half of cell phone users do it anyway. Worse yet, 44 percent of U.S. adults say they've been a passenger in a car when a driver used their cell phone in a way that created a dangerous situation, according to a poll released Friday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The finding suggests that drivers are talking out of both sides of their mouth. In a poll published last year, 89 percent of adults said they think texting while driving is dangerous and they would support a ban.
States and local governments have acted aggressively to legislate against texting while driving, and 28 states ban it outright, but the laws appear to be having little impact.
While recent emphasis has been placed on stopping young drivers from texting -- 28 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use by novice drivers -- adults are by one measure even more likely to text while driving. A Pew study last year found that 34 percent of 16- and 17-year-old drivers admitted sending or reading a text while driving, while 47 percent of adults said they had done so in the new study.
"People are happy with their cell phones. There's a sense that it's happening all the time all around them, so it must be ok," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project.
The study has limitations. It relied on drivers' honest answers to poll-takers' questions. But Rainie said that respondents were unusually willing to confess to cell phone use while driving, another sign that there is not an overwhelming social stigma attached to it.
And the study did not account for the circumstances of drivers' cell phone use. Some may argue that texting while sitting at a stop light or calling while on an open highway in the Southwest is not dangerous behavior.
Still, respondents in numerous other studies show drivers think cell phone use in cars is dangerous. These do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do results shouldn't be too surprising, Rainie said.
"This is a classic thing you see in a lot of polling, this idea that it's OK for me but not for others," Rainie said. "People often underestimate their neighbors' ability and overestimate their own."
Behavioral scientists sometimes call this "superiority bias," and it shows up in all sorts of studies. Most people think they have above-average intelligence, for example. More on point, in a study conducted during the 1980s, 93 percent of Americans said they were above-average drivers.
The Pew research is consistent with other studies that show U.S. drivers just can't seem to put down their cell phones. According to figures released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2008, at any given moment 6 percent of drivers are talking on a cell phone. That was up from 4 percent in 2002. The study also found that 1 percent of all drivers are texting at any given time.
That's not hard to observe. Just stand on any street corner and peek at drivers as they pass. Even during rush hour, a stunning number are yakking -- or even typing -- away.
Perhaps that's why a 2009 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 35 percent of drivers feel less safe on the road than they did five years ago.
Roads are getting safer, too
On the other hand, based on number of fatalities, driving is becoming safer. In March, the federal government announced that highway deaths fell nearly 9 percent from the previous year. The fatality rate was the lowest since the government began tracking the data in 1966. Highway deaths have fallen steadily since 2005, leading some to suggest that the drop off is no cause for celebration: They say a sluggish economy that has kept drivers off the road is the cause. But dramatic safety improvements in highway design and cars, along with increased seat belt use rates, are also cited as reasons for the dip in deaths.
But the drop-off might come with a trade-off, in the form a surprising cause-and-effect that's referred to as the Peltzman Effect. Cars can become so safe that drivers become overconfident and engage in more risky behaviors, such as texting while driving. It appears that while fatalities are down, fatalities caused by cell phone users are on the rise.
Not all states collect data on the cause of crashes, and often, that data is speculative. Still, the NHTSA estimates that in 2008, 5,870 people lost their lives and another half-million were injured while talking on the phone or texting -- meaning cell phones played a role in nearly one out of seven driving deaths and one out of five accidents.
Efforts by states to legislate the problem away have been bumpy. Seven states and the District of Columbia outlaw the use of all hand-held cell phones while driving, encouraging a thriving market in hands-free devices. But several studies have discredited this strategy, showing it's the conversation -- not the one-handed driving -- that causes the distraction and danger.
Still, despite those fits and starts, Congress seems ready to take on the issue. This month, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill that would set up a $94 million grant fund for states that take action against cell phone use while driving. The measure is awaiting action by the full Senate..
Enforcement also is a tricky issue. While in most states texting and driving is a primary offense -- meaning cops can issue tickets even if there is no other offense -- there are practical limits to the ability of police officers to peer into drivers' cars and see what they are doing behind the wheel. In many cases, tickets are handed out only after a police officer witnesses a tell-tale sign of texting while driving, such as erratic swerving.
In recent years, there has been more focus on the more general topic of "distracted" driving, which includes activities that range from fumbling with iPods to putting on makeup. Still, cell phones are a lightning rod for emotion on the topic. The heartbreaking stories of tragic deaths caused by cell phone use rival those on drunk driving.
Even Oprah has gotten involved, recently promoting a "No Phone Zone" pledge on her television show and in radio advertisements.
The Pew study shows that both legal and educational efforts aren't gaining much traction. Perhaps that's because technology is apparently using our brains against us. Some studies show that cell phone use -- calls or texts – evokes a response similar to addictive behavior. Receiving or sending a message can give recipients a "kick" in the form of dopamine, part of the brain's seek-and-pleasure system. One kick usually encourages another, and users often get caught in a "dopamine induced loop," according to psychologist Susan Weinschenk, author of the book "Neuro Web Design."
That makes it awfully hard to ignore a buzz that indicates a text message is waiting to be read -- outweighing any perceived risk.
Pew researchers found that men are more likely than women to text while driving, perhaps because men are generally "more risk takers," Rainie said. Still, 42 percent of women have texted while driving.
The only group which seems unwilling to make the dangerous texting-while-driving bet are older adults -- only 3 in 10 adults aged 46 or older say they have done so. The gap is easily explained because younger users are far more comfortable with multitasking, Rainie said.
"They are multitaskers in every other dimension of their lives, why not driving?" he said.