ATLANTA — More than half of high school seniors admit they text or email while driving, according to the first federal statistics on how common the habit is in teens.
An anonymous national survey conducted last year found that 58 percent of high school seniors said they had texted or emailed while driving during the previous month. About 43 percent of high school juniors acknowledged they did the same thing.
"I'm not surprised. I'm not surprised at all," said Vicki Rimasse, a New Jersey woman whose 18-year-old son caused a fender bender earlier this year while texting in traffic. She made him take a safe-driving class after the mishap.
"I felt like an idiot," said her son, Dylan Young. "It caused me to be a lot more cautious," said the high school senior, although he conceded that he still texts behind the wheel.
Washington is calling texting and cellphone use behind the wheel "a national epidemic," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood laid out a blueprint Thursday for stepped-up federal efforts and pressure on states to crack down on distracted driving.
Studies show the problem is particularly acute among teenage and young adult drivers, LaHood said. "We need to teach kids, who are the most vulnerable drivers, that texting and driving don't mix," LaHood said at a news conference. He pointed to a recent case in which a texting teen driver involved in a fatal accident was ordered jailed for a year.
The Transportation Department is also awarding $2.4 million to Delaware and California for pilot projects to combine more police enforcement with publicity campaigns against distracted driving. Similar pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., were shown to successfully reduce distracted driving, LaHood said.
LaHood has made his opposition to distracted driving a signature issue for the Obama administration. When he was appointed transportation secretary three years ago, 18 states had anti-texting laws and seven had bans on both texting and hand-held cellphone use. Today, 39 states ban texting, and 10 ban both texting and handheld cellphone use. Florida is not among them.
The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a total ban on cellphone use by drivers. Most studies show that hands-free conversations are just as distracting to drivers as those involving handheld phones.
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