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Teen drivers admit to texting in U.S. poll

ATLANTA -- Think your teen would never text while driving? More than half of high school seniors admitted in a government survey that they've done just that.

It's the first time the question was asked in a teen poll on risky behavior, and the finding comes amid a renewed federal crackdown on distracted driving.

Texting and cellphone use behind the wheel is "a national epidemic," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said yesterday. "We need to teach kids, who are the most vulnerable drivers, that texting and driving don't mix," he said at a Washington news conference to announce pilot projects in Delaware and California to discourage distracted driving.

In the survey, about 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 at all," said Vicki Rimasse, a New Jersey woman whose son caused a fender bender earlier this year after texting in traffic. She made him take a safe-driving class after the mishap.

"I felt like an idiot," said her son, Dylan Young, 18. The episode taught him "to be a lot more cautious," although he conceded that he sometimes still texts behind the wheel.

The findings released yesterday are the first federal statistics on how common the dangerous habit is in teens. Distracted driving deaths are most common in teens, blamed for about 16 percent of teen motor vehicle deaths.

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Thirty-nine states ban texting for all age groups, and an another five states outlaw it for novice teen drivers. Authorities are increasingly cracking down. In the last two weeks, teens in Missouri and Massachusetts have been sentenced to jail, one for a year, for fatal accidents involving texting.

For the survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention questioned more than 15,000 students last year. Some earlier studies had suggested teen texting while driving was becoming common, though perhaps not quite so high.

Still, the numbers aren't surprising, said Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington. She studies how teens use technology.

A typical teen sends and receives about 100 text messages a day, and it's the most common way many kids communicate with their peers.

"A lot of teens say 'Well, if the car's not moving and I'm at a stoplight or I'm stuck in traffic, that's OK,' " Lenhart said.

CDC officials said there was some good news in the survey:

More teens are wearing seatbelts. Only 8 percent said they rarely or never wear seatbelts, down from 26 percent in 1991.

Fewer teens said they drove drunk (8 percent vs. double that in the 1990s) or rode with a driver who had been drinking (24 percent, down from 40 percent).

Overall, teen deaths from motor vehicle crashes are down 44 percent in the last decade. About 3,100 teens died from traffic crashes in 2009, according to the most recent federal statistics.

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