Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Teens and Distracted Driving

Texting, Talking and Other Uses of the Cell Phone Behind the Wheel

by Mary Madden, Senior Research Specialist and Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist, Pew Internet & American Life Project


Over the summer of 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project conducted a survey of 800 teens ages 12-17 asking about their experiences with cell phone use in cars. All of the teens in our survey were asked about their experiences as passengers, and if they were age 16 or older and have a cell phone, they were also asked about their own actions behind the wheel including both talking and text messaging. Additionally, the Pew Internet Project and the University of Michigan conducted nine focus groups with teens ages 12-18 between June and October 2009 where the topic of driving and mobile phones was addressed. The following are the major findings from the survey and focus groups: 

  • 75% of all American teens ages 12-17 own a cell phone, and 66% use their phones to send or receive text messages.
  • Older teens are more likely than younger teens to have cell phones and use text messaging; 82% of teens ages 16-17 have a cell phone and 76% of that cohort are cell phone texters.
  • One in three (34%) texting teens ages 16-17 say they have texted while driving. That translates into 26% of all American teens ages 16-17.
  • Half (52%) of cell-owning teens ages 16-17 say they have talked on a cell phone while driving. That translates into 43% of all American teens ages 16-17.
  • 48% of all teens ages 12-17 say they have been in a car when the driver was texting.
  • 40% say they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger.


As early as 2006, and well before texting had become mainstream in the United States, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that more than a quarter of adult cell phone owners felt their cell phone had at some point compromised their driving ability. In the survey, 28% admitted they sometimes did not drive as safely as they should while using their mobile devices.1

Over time, cell phones have become increasingly important fixtures in Americans’ lives and public concern over their use while driving has grown.2 At the time of the 2006 survey, just 35% of adult cell phone owners said they used the text messaging feature on their phones. By April 2009, the use of text messaging by cell phone owners had nearly doubled to 65%.3

Several states including California, Connecticut and Oregon have already passed laws to ban all texting or talking with a handheld phone while driving, and the Senate is now considering a bill that would provide federal funding to states that enact similar laws.4 In September 2009 U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood convened policy makers, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives and academics to address the risk of text-messaging and other “distracted driving” behavior. At the conclusion of the summit, Secretary LaHood announced an executive order from President Obama that forbids federal workers from texting while driving government vehicles or their own vehicles while on the job.5

According to the latest research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2008 alone, there were 5,870 fatalities and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported. Distractions among young drivers are of particular concern, as the highest incidence of distracted driving occurs in the under-20 age group.6

New research released in July 2009 by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) examines a variety of tasks that draw drivers’ eyes away from the roadway and suggests that text messaging on a cell phone is associated with the highest risk among all cell phone-related tasks observed among drivers.7 The VTTI has also noted that teen drivers are generally at a much higher crash risk when compared with other drivers, but there is a gap in understanding to what extent specific behaviors and relative lack of driving experience may contribute to this elevated risk. An 18-month study of newly-licensed teen drivers is currently underway to further examine these factors.8

Research conducted at the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Laboratory over the past decade raises further problems with cell phone use in the car and suggests that talking on a cell phone while driving impairs driving ability in ways that conversing with a person in the car does not.9

Read the the full report at

1. Lee Rainie and Scott Keeter, “Americans and their cell phones,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, April 3, 2006.
2. Marjorie Connelly, “Many in U.S. Want Texting at the Wheel to Be Illegal,” The New York Times, Nov. 1, 2009.
3. John Horrigan, “Wireless Internet Use,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, July 22, 2009. Both the 2006 and 2009 surveys were dual frame, interviewing respondents via landlines and cell phones.
4. Kim Geiger, “Support in Senate for cellphone driving ban,” Los Angeles Times, October 14, 2009. Available at: 
5. Michael Dresser, “Don’t text while driving, Obama orders U.S. workers,” The Baltimore Sun, October 2, 2009.
6. Debra Ascone, Tonja Lindsey, and Cherian Varghese, “An Examination of Driver Distraction as Recorded in NHTSA Databases,” Data Reporting and Information Division, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, NHTSA, September 2009.
7. Sherri Box, “New data from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute provides insight into cell phone use and driving distraction,” VTTI, July 29, 2009.
8.VTTI In the News.
9. See Strayer, D.L. and Johnston, W.A., (2001), Strayer, D.L. Drews, F.A., and Crouch, D.J. (2003) and Drews, F.A., Pasupathi, M. and Strayer, D.L. (2008) The findings from these studies assert that talking on a cell phone while driving results in “inattention blindness,” slower reaction times and other impairments of driving skills that are similar to driving while intoxicated. Find these papers and others at Applied Cognition Lab

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