63% under 30 admit driving while on phone

YONKERS, N.Y. — Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said Monday he "dreaded the day" each of his four children turned 16. And then he cited the statistics that explain why.

Car crashes are the leading cause of teen deaths. Nearly 5,500 people in the U.S. were killed in distracted driving accidents in 2009. And according to a poll LaHood released, 63 percent of drivers under 30 acknowledge using a handheld phone while behind the wheel. Thirty percent say they've sent text messages while driving.

"Distracted driving has become a deadly epidemic on America's roads, and teens are especially vulnerable because of their inexperience behind the wheel and, often, peer pressure," LaHood said.

He came to the Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters of Consumer Reports magazine to announce a partnership aimed at getting young people to realize that "the safest way to get from one place to another is to hang up and drive."

The program includes a flier that lists six steps parents can take, including setting a good example and setting and enforcing ground rules.

The brochure is available online and will be distributed to schools and volunteer groups; a public service announcement has been produced and is being sent to TV stations nationwide; and a video meant to be played in retail stores including Wal-Mart could be seen by as many as 100 million people, LaHood said.

Another video on the Transportation Department website features Miss South Dakota, Loren Vaillancourt, who was at Monday's news conference. Her brother was killed in a distracted-driver accident, and she says on the video, "Because someone made a stupid mistake, I'm an only child."

Jacy Good, 24, of White Plains, N.Y., said she lost both her parents and was severely injured in a distracted-driving crash in Pennsylvania on her college graduation day in 2008. She has been campaigning ever since for a law against driving while phoning in Pennsylvania.

"If we can prevent it from happening to more people, there might be some justice in this world," Good said.

But she said there's some built-in frustration, because even in New York, which has a law against it, "everyone's still talking on their cell phones."

LaHood said he has met with "every CEO of every car manufacturing company" about whether features in new cars contribute to distracted driving. Regulators don't yet have "good data" on the subject, he said.

Consumer Reports, better known for testing the safety of autos themselves, got into the distracted driving issue because, "it's a critical auto safety issue that needs attention," said Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine.

He said one of the most worrisome findings of the poll was that only 30 percent of those under 30 felt it was dangerous to use a handheld phone while driving.

"Younger drivers were much less likely to consider it unsafe," said Donato Vaccaro, associate director of survey research for Consumer Reports.

Vaccaro said the poll of 1,026 drivers ages 18 or older was taken in November and December. Drivers were asked about their conduct — and that of others — in the previous 30 days. Ninety-four percent said they had seen someone driving while phoning.

Older drivers were hardly innocent. Vaccaro said 41 percent of those 30 and older acknowledged driving while using a handheld phone and 9 percent said they had sent texts.