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When it comes to texting and driving, US is No. 1

Americans live far more dangerously than our European counterparts when it comes to texting and driving, with more than two-thirds of us admitting to texting while at the wheel, federal government researchers reported on Thursday.

A survey of drivers across the United States and Europe shows big differences in the numbers who admit they get distracted at the phone, but the U.S. scored by far the worst.

Just short of 69 percent of Americans aged 18 to 64 admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving at least once in the past 30 days. This compared to 21 percent of British drivers, who were the least likely to text and drive, and 40 percent of adults in France. And 31 percent of U.S. drivers admitted they had texted at the wheel, compared to 15 percent in Spain.

What puzzles the researchers is why the numbers are so different across the seven European countries in the survey: Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

“While U.S. states differ in their cell phone use laws, nearly all European countries have hand-held bans in place, yet there is still a large variation in European estimates,” wrote Rebecca Naumann and Ann Dellinger of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Virtually all experts agree that talking on a cellphone or using one to write texts or emails is enormously distracting. Even hands-free use can be a major distraction and health experts say people shouldn’t use phones at all while driving.

A team at the University of North Texas Health Science Center reported in 2010 that drivers distracted by cell phones killed an estimated 16,000 people from 2001 to 2007, based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

Various U.S. states have tried making it a crime to use a handset while driving, communication campaigns, devices that discourage cellphone use in a moving vehicle and education. The CDC says 33 states and the District of Columbia have laws restricting at least some teens or new drivers from using cell phones while driving.

The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended a blanket ban on the use of cellphones in cars and also encourages the development of technology that would disable cellphone function within reach of a driver in a moving vehicle.

“The cell phone can be a fatal distraction for those who use it while they drive,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement.  “Driving and dialing or texting don’t mix. If you are driving, pull over to a safe place and stop before you use your cell phone.”

Linda Degutis, director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, says parents should model safe driving behavior. “It’s especially risky for young, inexperienced  drivers -- who are already extremely vulnerable to crashes -- to be distracted when they are behind the wheel. Answering a call or reading a text is never worth a loss of life,” she said.

The CDC team used data from 5,000 people surveyed by marketing and public relations firm Porter Novelli for the study.

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