About half of American drivers between 21 and 24 say they've thumbed messages or emailed from the driver's seat. And what's more, many drivers don't think it's dangerous when they do it -- only when others do.
A national survey, the first government study of its kind on distracted driving, and other data released Thursday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration underscore the difficulty authorities face in discouraging texting and cellphone talking while driving.
At any given moment last year on America's streets and highways, nearly one in every 100 car drivers was texting, emailing, surfing the Web or otherwise using a hand-held electronic device, the safety administration said.
The results shouldn't be surprising to San Diego drivers. In October, a survey from the Automobile Association of America showed that texting behind the wheel has tripled in Southern California since 2009.
In January of 2009, only 1.4 percent of people said they drove while manipulating a wireless device. In Sept. 2011, AAA found that 4.1 percent of drivers could be texting at any given time while on the road.
Although the percentage is relatively low at 4.1 percent, it is three times higher than it was when the California state Assembly enacted a texting ban.
Drivers surveyed in the NHTSA study excuse the behavior when they are behind the wheel but not when others are driving.
More than half of drivers said making a cellphone call made no difference to their driving performance, and a quarter said texting or emailing made no difference. But 90 percent said that when they are passengers they feel very unsafe if the driver is texting or emailing.
Most surveyed support bans on hand-held cellphone use and texting while driving -- 71 percent and 94 percent, respectively. And most said they want people who violate the bans to be punished with fines of $100 or more. Almost a quarter supported fines in the $200 to $499 range.
"Everyone thinks he or she is an above average driver -- it's all the nuts out there who need educating," said Russ Rader, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Most said they would answer a cellphone call while driving and continue to drive after answering. And nearly two of 10 acknowledged sending texts or emails from behind the wheel. That spiked up to half of drivers 21 to 24 years old.
About twice as many drivers reported answering incoming calls as making calls while driving, 71 percent to 41 percent. And more drivers reported reading than sending texts or emails.
Those activities spiked over the previous year, even as states rush to ban the practices.
In California, lawmakers tried to double the fines for distracted driving violations, but SB 28 was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 7 who didn't agree with "ratcheting up the penalties."
California law bans drivers from using wireless devices to write, send or read text-based communication and from using cell phones unless they are used with a hands-free device.
If caught, they face a $20 fine for the first offense and $50 for other convictions.
The CHP issued about 150,000 tickets for use of handheld cell phones in 2010 and a total of 3,742 text messaging tickets since the texting law went into effect Jan. 1, 2009.