Driving distracted

Dangerous texting and cell-phone use is widespread, our survey finds

Last reviewed: April 2011

The 911 call went out about a minute after Sarah Edwards received her last text message. In January the 18-year-old high-school senior from Chocowinity, N.C., was reading that message when her 1988 Honda Accord drifted across the center line of a rural two-lane road and into the rear tires of a loaded logging truck. She died instantly. "She never looked up," said her mother, Tracy O'Carroll, remembering the words of the truck driver who made the call.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has called distracted driving a deadly epidemic. And a new nationally representative survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center shows just how widespread it is. Almost two-thirds of the survey respondents had seen drivers in other vehicles texting on a cell phone or other mobile device, just in the previous 30 days. Almost all—94 percent—had observed motorists talking on a handheld phone. In the same period, more than half had seen a dangerous situation that was related to a distracted driver.

But the survey also shows what's helping to change that behavior, including educating drivers about the danger of careless cell-phone use and new bans in many regions that target the hazard.

On the road in Los Angeles

California is one of nine states that have made it illegal for drivers to text or talk on a handheld cell phone. Such bans have caused many people to change their driving habits, our survey found. But drivers still engage in risky behavior, as we saw on the city's freeways.

Photographs by David Zentz