It’s the first time the question was asked in a teen poll on risky behavior.
In the survey, about 58 percent of high school seniors said they had texted or e-mailed 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 afterward.
“I felt like an idiot,” said her 18-year-old son, Dylan Young. The episode taught him “to be a lot more cautious,” though he conceded that he sometimes still texts behind the wheel.
The findings released Thursday 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.
Focusing on a cellphone instead of the road leads to delayed reaction times, lane swerves and other lapses with sometimes fatal consequences, experts say.
Thirty-nine states ban texting for all age groups, and five more outlaw it for novice teen drivers. Authorities are increasingly cracking down. In the past 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 last year questioned more than 15,000 public and private high school students across the country.
The numbers aren’t really surprising, said Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington who 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 children 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,’ ” said Lenhart, who has done focus groups with teens.
Other teens think it is safer if they hold the phone up so they can see the road and text at the same time, she said.
The CDC survey didn’t ask whether the texting or e-mailing was done while the vehicle was moving or stopped. The survey is conducted every two years.
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.