It's generally a good thing when the United States comes out at the top of a technology related study -- but not when it comes to texting while driving, a habit in which we seem to rival only Portugal.
Just over 30 percent, or nearly one in three Americans surveyed in 2011, admitted that within the prior 30 days he or she read or received texts behind the wheel, while 69 percent of respondents reported that they spoke on the phone while driving. Factor in those who didn't want to admit it to the 2011 EuroPNStyles and HealthStyles survey -- and new drivers who have taken up the practice since -- and the picture gets even scarier.
Safer in Spain
The data for the U.S. and seven European countries were analyzed by the government's Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The CDC is a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In Europe, percentages ranged from 15.1 percent for texting in Spain to 31 percent in Portugal, the same as the U.S. In the phone-use match-up, the United Kingdom had the fewest risk-takers, while Portugal had 59.4 percent of respondents admitting they gab while driving.
Talking on the phone without a hands-free set-up is banned in 10 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, and texting is banned in 39 states and D.C. Other states impose limits only on new drivers and school bus drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Highway Loss Data Institute.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Distraction.gov Web site says 3,092 people were killed in distraction-related accidents in 2011, which includes people eating, texting, talking on the phone or playing with music instead of looking at the road.
In addition to the DOT and CDC, there have been numerous anti-texting campaigns aimed at young drivers, seen as the most likely offenders. According to the CDC report, a higher percentage of 18- to 34-year-old drivers of both genders reported reading or sending text or e-mail messages while driving than those ages 45-64.
AT&T in 2010 produced an 11-minute video urging drivers to turn off their devices and focus on the controls, featuring people whose lives have been affected by tragedy, and CTIA-The Wireless Association has also backed more education.
A growing number of services from carriers, as well as third-party apps, allow phones to be disabled while a car is in motion, reply automatically to texts while the owner is driving, read texts aloud or even alert parents to their kids' bad behavior.
But it's not enough, said Robert Sinclair, spokesman for the Automobile Association of America in New York.
"It's not so much the failings of the tech industry to get the anti-texting-while-driving message out there, though that's certainly part of it," Sinclair told us.
"Rather, our society as a whole takes very lightly the seriousness and dangers of driving. Lloyds of London says that driving and riding in a car is the single most dangerous thing a person can do in the course of their day-to-day existence. But we cut or eliminate high school driver's education and generally give a very poor, low level of training to youngsters before they are allowed to get on the road.
"Car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for teens. A shame, really a shame."