TUESDAY, Aug. 25, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Teenagers aren't the only ones prone to texting and talking while driving: A new survey finds that the vast majority of adults use their cellphones behind the wheel.
Completed by more than 700 San Diego residents, the distracted-driving survey suggests that public health warnings about the dangerous practice need to reach a wider audience.
"This study was important because it highlighted that this behavior is not unique to only teenagers and young adults," said study author Jessa Engelberg, a Ph.D. candidate in the public health program at the University of California, San Diego. "Middle-aged adults admitted to using their cellphones while driving, including manual manipulations, [such as] using the phone to text, check email or other apps while driving, and talking on a handheld phone, which is illegal in California."
Engelberg and her colleagues report their findings in the September issue of the Journal of Transport & Health.
Cellphones are one of several distractions that can prompt drivers to take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel, and their mind off the task at hand, the researchers said.
More than one in four car accidents are caused by cellphone use, according to the U.S. National Safety Council. And the researchers added that the risk of a crash is eight times higher if a driver is texting and four times higher if the driver is talking on a hands-free cellphone.
Recent statistics from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) show that more than 3,300 Americans were killed and roughly 421,000 were injured in 2012 due to distracted driving.
With smartphones now in the hands of 90 percent of American adults, NHTSA pins at least 12 percent of all driving fatalities on calling and texting.
And while hands-free calling is legal in most states, it's not the benign activity many believe it to be, the researchers added. Prior research has indicated that any type of phone conversation behind the wheel diminishes reaction time as much as being over the legal drinking limit.
While exploring other distracting habits such as eating, fixing makeup and hair, or searching for lost objects, the current survey focused mainly on cellphone use.
Those questioned were between the ages of 30 and 64. Three-quarters were women, and nearly 70 percent were white. All drove at least once weekly, and all owned a cellphone, most often a smartphone. About four in 10 said they had children in their household.
The troubling survey results: 56 percent said they made handheld calls while driving, while 75 percent said they made hands-free calls. Less than 30 percent knew that hands-free calling was as risky as drinking, and nearly 90 percent expressed confidence that they remained "capable" or "very capable" drivers while making such calls.
Three in 10 said they had sent messages while driving down the freeway, while 70 percent said they never did so or would only do so in an emergency. Two-thirds said they had texted while stopped at a red light.
More than a third said their calling habits were driven by a need to be available for work. Overall, cellphone behavior did not appear to be influenced by whether or not drivers were parents or whether or not children were passengers in the car.
What can be done?
"A very promising finding was that the majority of respondents [said they] would be open to using an app that allowed a customizable text to be automatically sent to the person who sent the original text, informing them that they were driving and would contact them when they reached their destination," Engelberg said. "It is a promising avenue to explore."
Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, described the new findings as "a good news, bad news scenario."
"The bad news," he said, "is that the distracted driving problem is more pervasive than just teens and young adults. As a culture, all age groups have become conditioned to stay in constant contact with family, friends and co-workers, and unfortunately that includes when they are behind the wheel.
"The good news," Adkins added, "is that these middle-aged drivers are still teachable. Strong laws and the enforcement of these laws will help deter their behavior."
Adkins even suggested enlisting teen drivers to "put pressure on their parents to hang up and drive. It really boils down to culture change, which requires a multifaceted approach and takes time."
There's more on the dangers of using cellphones while driving at the U.S. National Safety Council.