June 18, 2010

Adults and Cell Phone Distractions

Adults and cell phone distractions

Adults are just as likely as teens to have texted while driving and are substantially more likely to have talked on the phone while driving.

In addition, 49% of adults say they have been passengers in a car when the driver was sending or reading text messages on their cell phone. Overall, 44% of adults say they have been passengers of drivers who used the cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger.

Beyond driving, some cell-toting pedestrians get so distracted while talking or texting that they have physically bumped into another person or an object.

These are some of the key findings from a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project:

  • Nearly half (47%) of all texting adults say they have sent or read a text message while driving. That compares to one in three (34%) texting teens ages 16-17 who said they had “texted while driving” in a September 2009 survey.3
  • Looking at the general population, this means that 27% of all American adults say they have sent or read text messages while driving. That compares to 26% of all American teens ages 16-17 who reported texting at the wheel in 2009.
  • Three in four (75%) cell-owning adults say they have talked on a cell phone while driving. Half (52%) of cell-owning teens ages 16-17 reported talking on a cell phone while driving in the 2009 survey.
  • Among all adults, that translates into 61% who have talked on a cell phone while driving. That compares to 43% of all American teens ages 16-17 who said they had talked on their phones while driving in the 2009 survey.
  • Half (49%) of all adults say they have been in a car when the driver was sending or reading text messages on their cell phone. The same number (48%) of all teens ages 12-17 said they had been in a car “when the driver was texting.”4
  • 44% of all adults say they have been in a car when the driver used the cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger. About the same number of teens (40%) said they had been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a dangerous way.
  • Beyond driving, one in six (17%) cell-owning adults say they have physically bumped into another person or an object because they were distracted by talking or texting on their phone. That amounts to 14% of all American adults who have been so engrossed in talking, texting or otherwise using their cell phones that they bumped into something or someone.

These new findings for those ages 18 and older come from a nationwide phone survey of 2,252 American adults (744 of the interviews were conducted on cell phones) conducted between April 29 and May 30. In that survey, 1,917 were cell owners and 1,189 used text messaging. The margin of error in the full sample is two percentage points and in the cell subpopulation is three percentage points.

The findings for teens are based on previously released data from a separate nationwide telephone survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research International between June 26 and September 24, 2009, among a sample of 800 teens ages 12-17 and a parent or guardian.  For a full discussion of the results from this survey, please see the “Teens and Distracted Driving” report.

Introduction and background

Cell phones appeal to Americans for many reasons, starting with the benefits of constant connection to family and friends. In the era of smart phones , instant and ubiquitous access to information, news, and games on handheld devices also draws users into deeper engagement with their mobile devices. Cell phones have become so popular that the number of adults who own mobile phones has often outpaced the percentage of adults who are online. A new Pew Internet survey finds that 82% of American adults (those age 18 and older) now own cell phones, up from 65% when we took our first reading in late 2004.  Some 58% of adults now send or receive text messages with their cell phones. By comparison, a September 2009 Pew Internet survey found that 75% of all American teens ages 12-17 own a cell phone, and 66% text.

Many of these cell owners take advantage of the technology by performing all kinds of tasks in all kinds of places, including in the car and while they are walking. At times, their cell use is distracting and dangerous because it takes place when their attention is best focused elsewhere.  Studies at Virginia Tech and elsewhere show that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers.5 According to research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2008 alone, there were 5,870 fatalities and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported.

As a result, seven states and the District of Columbia now ban all handheld cell use while driving, 28 states ban all cell use by novice drivers, 18 states ban all cell use for bus drivers, and 28 states ban texting while driving.6 The Distracted Driving Prevention Act, introduced last fall by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), would provide incentive grants to states that ban texting and handheld cell phone use for all drivers and would require a complete ban on cell phone use by drivers under the age of 18.

This report covers related findings from a recent Pew Internet survey.

Cite this publication: Mary Madden and Lee Rainie. “Adults and Cell Phone Distractions.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 18, 2010) http://www.pewinternet.org/2010/06/18/adults-and-cell-phone-distractions/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. In the May 2010 survey, adult respondents were asked: “Have you ever sent or read a text message while driving?” In the September 2009 survey, teen respondents ages 16-17 were asked: “Have you ever texted while driving?”
  2. The same differences in question wording apply here as well. The adults were asked: “Have you ever been in a car when the driver was sending or reading text messages on their cell phone?” The teens were asked: “Have you ever been in a car when the driver was texting?”
  3. Richtel, Matt, “Drivers and Legislators Dismiss Cellphone Risks,” The New York Times, July 18, 2009. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/technology/19distracted.html
  4. See Governors Highway Safety Association update on cell phones and texting for June, available at: http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/cellphone_laws.html