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PolitiFact Florida | Tampa Bay Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact Florida: Texting doesn't top alcohol as factor in teen driving deaths

In Florida, texting while driving is a secondary offense, which means an officer can’t ticket a motorist only for typing or reading messages while behind the wheel

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In Florida, texting while driving is a secondary offense, which means an officer can’t ticket a motorist only for typing or reading messages while behind the wheel

On the first day of Florida's new texting-while-driving ban, state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, was already announcing a proposal to make the law tougher.

The current law makes texting while driving a secondary offense, which means an officer can't ticket a motorist only for typing or reading messages while behind the wheel. Rather, the driver has to first commit another violation, like swerving or running a red light.

Sachs has filed a bill to make texting while driving a primary offense, which she argues will make it easier to enforce. The penalties — $30 for a first violation — will remain.

At a news conference to announce her proposal, Sachs recited several somber statistics. We decided to fact-check this claim: "In 2011, texting surpassed alcohol as the leading contributing factor in teen driving deaths."

There's little doubt that texting is a danger in automobile safety. A 2006 study by David Strayer and Frank Drews at the University of Utah found that people are just as impaired when they drive and talk on a cellphone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 percent.

The report, which looked at talking on handheld or hands-free cellphones and not texting, concluded that the effects of using a cellphone while driving "can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk."

But is it true that in 2011, texting surpassed alcohol as the leading contributing factor in teen driving deaths?

The statistic has appeared in various media outlets, but the study's chief researcher, Dr. Andrew Adesman, said the media "wrongly attributed" the drinking-texting conclusions to his team's studies, a bit of misinformation that has continued to spread.

Adesman said his research team analyzed CDC data — the 2011 "Youth Risk Behavior Survey." The study found that 45 percent of U.S. high school students 16 and up (46 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls) reported texting while driving during the previous 30 days. The study suggested that the number could actually be a lot higher, given that 75 percent of teens now have cellphones.

The study, however, didn't directly compare texting and drinking while driving, which makes Sachs' conclusion questionable.

The study found a "subgroup" of the students who admit to texting while driving also tended to be involved in other risky behaviors on the road, including not wearing a seat belt, riding with a driver who had been drinking alcohol, and drinking and driving. These risk-takers were also more likely to smoke marijuana, have unsafe sex and "use indoor tanning devices."

The correlation of all these factors makes it difficult to determine what is the "leading contributing factor in teen driving deaths."

Certain aspects of the study didn't provide much support for proponents of texting laws. Researchers found that although texting while driving was slightly less common in states that prohibit it, "the reality is that millions of teens text while driving," Adesman said. The study didn't consider the strength of the laws or penalties.

Adesman did say there's reason to be alarmed about the number of teens texting: "Kids aren't drinking on a regular basis on school days, but they are texting daily."

Another problem for Sachs' claim: The data isn't perfect. The involvement of cellphones is still underreported in accidents, said Deb Trombley, senior program manager for transportation initiatives for the National Safety Council. "One challenge is that there isn't good data. Cellphone use isn't being recorded on crash reports. … It goes down as distracted driving."

NHTSA officials said the data they collect suggested the opposite of what Sachs claimed. According to the agency, 12 percent of 2,105 teenage drivers 14 to 18 involved in fatal crashes in 2011 were distracted in some way; 24 percent of those distracted drivers were using a cellphone. By comparison, 20 percent (428) of 14- to 18-year-old drivers involved in a fatal crash in 2011 had some level of alcohol in their system.

We rate the claim Mostly False.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/florida.

The statement

"In 2011, texting surpassed alcohol as the leading contributing factor in teen driving deaths."

State Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, in a news conference

The ruling

Politifact ruling: Mostly False
Sachs' statistic is based on a misinterpretation of a scientific study. We rate the claim Mostly False.

PolitiFact Florida: Texting doesn't top alcohol as factor in teen driving deaths 11/03/13 [Last modified: Sunday, November 3, 2013 10:42pm]
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