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NHTSA Reports on Major Survey Of Cell Phone Use by Drivers

At any given time, an estimated 3 percent of those driving passenger vehicles on America's roadways are talking on hand-held cell phones, according to results of a groundbreaking survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In its newly released research report, NHTSA estimates that 500,000 drivers of passenger vehicles (cars, vans, sport utility vehicles and pickups) are talking on hand-held cell phones during any given daytime moment throughout the week. The report is based on an observational survey of drivers conducted in 50 geographic areas.

The research represents the first observational study by NHTSA of active cell phone use by drivers. NHTSA data collectors observed more than 12,000 vehicles between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day of the week during a period spanning October and November of 2000. Data were collected at 640 intersections.

The research covers use rates for hand-held cell phones, not the "hands free" types now used by some drivers. It also does not attempt to assess the contribution of cell phone use to traffic crashes, though NHTSA data indicate that some form of driver distraction is a contributing factor in 20 to 30 percent of all crashes.

The highest use rate observed during the survey (8 percent) was by drivers of vans and SUVs during non-rush hours. Use rates by drivers of all types of passenger vehicles were almost twice as high during non-rush hours as during rush hours.

Female drivers were observed using a cell phone more frequently than male drivers. This was especially true for female drivers of vans and SUVs, where use rates were nearly twice as high as male drivers (6.1 percent compared to 3.2 percent).

There was little difference in cell phone use by drivers in the "young adult" age group (16 to 24) versus the "adult" age group (24 to 69). However, use by "seniors" (ages 70 and over) was much less (1.4 percent versus the national use rate of 3 percent).

Finally, use by drivers classified as "white" was higher than use by drivers classified as "black" or of "other races" (3.7 percent compared to 2.3 percent and 1.7 percent respectively).

Overall, cell phone use rates were slightly higher in suburban areas than in rural areas (3.4 percent compared to 3 percent).

For the nation as a whole, the survey shows that cell phone use rates were highest for drivers of vans and SUVs and lowest for those driving pickup trucks. Drivers of vans and SUVs also had the highest use rates in the Midwest and South. In the Northeast, use rates for passenger car drivers and the drivers of vans and SUVs were essentially the same. In the Midwest and West, drivers of pickups had higher use rates than did passenger car drivers.

Cell phone use by drivers was higher on weekdays than on weekends. On weekends, the use rate for drivers of pickups exceeded the use rates of drivers of passenger cars and the drivers of vans and SUVs. On weekdays, use rates by drivers of vans and SUVs was higher than that of drivers of other vehicles.

The 2000 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey, a phone survey conducted by NHTSA from November 2000 to January 2001, estimated that 54 percent of drivers "usually" have some type of wireless phone in their vehicle with them. Fifty-five percent of these drivers reported that their phone is on during "all" or "most" of their trips and 73 percent reported using their phone while driving.

The newly released research on cell phone use rates by drivers was conducted along with NHTSA's "National Occupant Protection Use Survey," an observational study of seat belt use that has been conducted by NHTSA periodically since 1994.

Results of NHTSA's observational study on cell phone use are contained in a research note on the agency's Website at: The overall estimate of driver hand-held cell phone use has a margin of error of one percentage point.