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More texting behind the wheel, yet driving is getting safer

Texting-while-driving is up 50 percent in one year, the feds report with some alarm--even though overall 2010 traffic deaths fell to a 60-year low.

Texting while driving jumped 50 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study released this week.

Thirty-five states ban texting while driving. OregonDOT/Flickr

But that rather ominous-sounding jump should bear an asterisk, because according to the administration, only 0.9 percent of the drivers it observed at selected stoplights and intersections were texting, up from 0.6 percent the year before--which means that in spite of the 50 percent jump, texting was observed among fewer than 1 out of 100 drivers. What's more, the 2010 number was still lower than the recent peak of one percent measured in 2008.

While safety administration head David Strickland called such distracted driving a "major problem," it's worth noting that he did so in the very same press release that touted the fact that 2010 traffic deaths fell to their lowest level since 1949. That's 32,885 fatalities--still too many, but definitely headed in the right direction.

These conflicting findings--that traffic fatalities are at a record low while texting behind the wheel is at a record high--might leave you wondering just how distracting texting while driving actually is. (Texting isn't the only distraction in question, by the way; the agency also found that the drivers talking on a headset rose from 0.6 percent to 0.9 percent, while those using hand-held phones remained flat at 5 percent.)

The short answer is that it isn't yet clear, which may be why the NHTSA says it will continue its focus on the subject. For the first time, the agency broke out "distraction-affected crashes" in its 2010 data, which it said accounted for 3,092 fatalities last year.

What we do know is that the rate of texting is climbing in spite of widespread bans. Back in 2009, we reported on a survey finding a third of teens admitting to having texted while driving. Since then, many states began to impose a ban on the act. In fact, this November Pennsylvania became the 35th state to issue some form of a ban, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Furthermore, a spokesman for the association has just told the Associated Press: "It is clear that educational messages alone aren't going to change their behavior. Rather, good laws with strong enforcement are what is needed."

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The safety administration's survey does provide some insights into driving behaviors. For one, age plays a role. Roughly half of 21- to 24-year-olds admit to texting or emailing while driving, with the 18- to 20-year-old cohort just behind at 44 percent. That percentage drops to just 0.4 percent among those 65 and older.

And when it comes to actual crashes, one percent of those who said they were in a crash in 2010 were sending a text or email and another one percent were reading messages. Most were 18 to 20 years old. (Drunk driving, meanwhile, which played a role in 30 percent of fatalities, is not considered a distraction.)

The most commonly reported distractions while driving are talking to other passengers (which occurs during 28 percent of driving trips) and adjusting the car radio (17 percent). Eating or drinking is near the top of the list at 5.6 percent, while reading emails or texting is down at 1.2 percent.

So texting has jumped 50 percent in one year. But with the actual incident rate still so low, other distractions far higher, and motor-vehicle fatalities continuing to decline, calling texting behind the wheel a "major problem" and rushing to impose more bans may prove to be premature.