Americans are still surfing while driving.
The number of drivers who report using their cellphones to access the Internet while behind the wheel continues to rise, to a point where nearly one of four drivers are going online while driving, according to a national survey that has tracked the potentially deadly practice over the past five years.
Insurer State Farm began asking drivers in 2009 whether they went online while driving. The percentage of drivers who said they do so has nearly doubled, from 13% in 2009 to 24% this year. Among drivers ages 18-29, that number rose from 29% to 49%.
There were also jumps in the percentages of people who read or respond to e-mail, and who read or update social media networks while driving.
Most research on distracted driving — and most laws against it — have focused on texting while driving, which creates a crash risk 23 times greater than not doing so, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Research at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that reading or sending a text takes a driver's eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds — long enough to cover the length of a football field at 55 mph. A 2009 study by Road and Driver magazine found that the reaction times of two drivers were faster when they were legally drunk then when reading or sending texts.
The increases are driven largely by the growing use of smartphones among drivers 40 and older, says Chris Mullen, State Farm's director of technology research. "It's not just a youthful problem."
Over the past three years, the sharpest increases in smartphone ownership were among older drivers. For drivers ages 40-49, the percentage that owns smartphones rose from 47% in 2011 to 82% in 2013; for those 50-64, it went from 44% to 64%, and for those 65 and older, from 23% to 39%.
Perhaps reflecting the nation's sustained campaign against texting while driving, that problem is growing much more slowly than surfing the Web. The percentage of people who report texting while driving rose slightly over the past five years, from 31% to 35% of all drivers. Among those 18-29, the number who report doing so has actually decreased, from 71% to 69%.
The rise in ownership of smartphones, which allow users to surf the Web, access social media and send and receive e-mail, means there are more opportunities than ever for driver distraction, Mullen says. "We want to keep an eye on the use of the smartphone beyond talking and texting," she says. "We need to keep an eye on social media, reading e-mail, all these other functions folks can use. … That could be legislation, it could be enforcement, it could be education and awareness."
Although texting while driving is regarded by many as a phenomenon affecting primarily younger drivers, the new survey confirms a different reality. Half of drivers 30-39, 31% of those 40-49 and 19% of those 50-64 said they text while driving.
Chris Sedrel, 66, of Iowa City, says she frequently drives to see her children in Illinois, North Carolina and Vermont. She says she texts while driving — but only on interstate highways.
"When I'm on the interstate, I have read a text from my daughter, for example," says Sedrel, who began driving on her family's farm at age 9 and has been licensed for 50 years. "Or I'll use it to check e-mail if nobody's around me."
Sedrel, who says her only crash was years ago in a snowstorm, says she doesn't speed or drink alcohol. "I constantly reconsider (texting and driving)," she says. "Because I want to be safe. I don't know how much accidents are happening because people are texting on the interstate."
She says she would stop texting while driving if she had a crash or even a close call.
And, she says, she will urge her 12-year-old grandson not to text and drive — anywhere.