WASHINGTON — Texting while driving increased 50 percent last year despite a rush by states to ban the practice, federal safety officials said Thursday. Two out of 10 drivers say they've sent messages from behind the wheel — and that spikes much higher among young adults.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration takes an annual snapshot of drivers' behavior by staking out selected stoplights and intersections to count people using cellphones and hand-held Web devices that allow them to text, view directions, check emails, surf the Internet, or play games. At any given time, just under 1 percent of drivers were texting or manipulating hand-held devices.
The activity increased to 0.9 percent of drivers in 2010, up from 0.6 percent the year before.
In a separate telephone survey of drivers, 18 percent said they've sent texts or emails while at the wheel. That number jumps to half among younger drivers, ages 21 to 24.
The survey also found that most drivers will answer a cellphone call while driving and most will continue to drive while they talk. NHTSA surveyed 6,000 drivers ages 18 or older in the national poll conducted a year ago and released Thursday.
"What's clear from all of the information we have is that driver distraction continues to be a major problem," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said.
The increase in texting while driving came even though many states have banned the practice. Last month, Pennsylvania became the 35th state to forbid it.
Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said the increase is alarming.
"It is clear that educational messages alone aren't going to change their behavior," Adkins said. "Rather, good laws with strong enforcement are what is needed. Many drivers won't stop texting until they fear getting a ticket."
The safety administration reported earlier this year that pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., produced significant reductions in distracted driving by combining stepped-up ticketing of drivers with high-profile public education campaigns.
Before and after each enforcement wave, NHTSA researchers observed cellphone use by drivers and conducted surveys at driver' license offices in the two cities. They found that in Syracuse, hand-held cellphone use and texting declined by a third. In Hartford, there was a 57 percent drop in handheld use and texting behind the wheel dropped by nearly three-quarters.
There were an estimated 3,092 deaths in crashes affected by distractions in 2010, the safety administration said. That number was derived using a new methodology aimed at getting a more precise picture of distracted driving deaths and can't be compared to tallies from previous years, NHTSA officials said.
Overall, 32,885 people died in traffic crashes in the United States in 2010, a nearly 3 percent drop and the lowest number of fatalities since 1949. Traffic deaths have been declining steadily for several years. Safety researchers generally attribute the lower deaths to a decline in driving because of the poor economy combined with better designed and equipped cars and stronger safety laws.
Bucking the trend, there were 4,502 motorcycle deaths in 2010, a 0.7 percent increase. That may mean the sudden 16 percent decline in motorcycle deaths seen in 2009 is beginning to reverse. Overall, motorcycle deaths have doubled since 1995.