Caution: Those texting drivers in your rear-view mirror may be older than they appear.
According to State Farm's annual distracted-driving survey, smartphone use behind the wheel continues to increase. And it's no longer just phone-tethered young people who are making our roads more hazardous to life, limb and auto insurance rates.
More drivers using smartphones
The survey of 1,000 motorists found that smartphone ownership among drivers ages 40 to 49 has increased from 47 percent in 2011 to 82 percent this year. Growing smartphone ownership by young and old alike has nearly doubled the ranks of drivers who admit to accessing email and social media via the Internet while driving, from 13 percent in 2009 to 24 percent this year. Internet use among drivers in the 18-to-29 age group rose from 29 percent to 49 percent during the same period.
"It's not just a youthful problem," says Chris Mullen, State Farm's director of technology research.
While a growing number of older motorists seem to be getting their 'net on the fly, the nationwide anti-texting campaign aimed primarily at young people seems to be having an impact as well. State Farm found that texting while driving among the 18-to-29 age group has declined slightly, from 71 percent last year to 69 percent, and slowed, from 31 percent to 35 percent, among all drivers.
While public service ads typically depict young people texting behind the wheel, State Farm researchers found that half of drivers age 30 to 39, a third of the 40-to-49 crowd and nearly a fifth of drivers age 50 to 64 admit to the practice.
Not seeing the danger
Despite the grim statistics -- texting while driving contributes to more than 100,000 accidents and kills more than 3,000 teens each year -- those surveyed seem relatively unconcerned about the danger of broader phone use behind the wheel. True, 76 percent admit they find sending a text very distracting and 62 percent rate reading a text as such. But when it comes to onboard, hand-held phone use, just a third (34 percent) rate it very distracting, and less so than reaching for a moving object (61 percent); riding with a pet in their lap (53 percent); or attending to children in the back seat (41 percent).
With the exception of Arizona, Montana and South Carolina, all other states have enacted full or partial bans on texting while driving. But if I'm reading the State Farm tea leaves correctly, drivers already are moving beyond texting to email and Internet use. Should we feel safer that the guy rolling up behind us is immersed in Words With Friends or updating his Facebook wall instead of texting?
The fact remains, and studies have shown, that any electronic interaction while driving, be it texting, surfing the 'net or even a hands-free phone conversation, slows reaction times to the same levels as drunken driving, sometimes with lethal results.
Let's hope for better numbers next year.
Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus.