Teens Safer Behind Wheel, but Too Many Texting

Texts and Emails Can Cause Deadly Distractions

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

June 7, 2012 -- Teens have become safer drivers over the past 20 years, though now they have new distractions that put them at high risk on the road: their iPhones and other tech devices.

That's one of the major conclusions of the CDC's 2011 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which was released today. The report lists many types of risky behaviors teens engage in, but this was the first time the federal health agency has collected statistics on the hazards of texting and emailing while behind the wheel.

Technology presents new risks, the CDC's Howell Wechsler, EdD, MPH, told reporters during a news conference. An estimated 1 in 3 teens reported texting or emailing while driving.

"Concern about the risks had been widespread, and this data confirms it," Wechsler said. "Texting is particularly dangerous."

This news comes a day after a Massachusetts 18-year-old was sentenced to one year in prison for causing a deadly accident while texting and driving, showing both the risk and the consequence of the behavior.

On the encouraging side though, the vast majority of students now wear seat belts, and the number of teens who report either driving drunk or riding with a drunk driver has dropped dramatically. That has contributed to a 44% reduction in car-related teen deaths over the past decade, says Wechsler.

However, car crashes still kill more teens each year than any other cause. According to the report, 1 in 3 teen deaths occurs on the road.

Distraction is a key contributor to these deaths, and, says Wechsler, drivers under 20 are at increased risk.

"They have the highest proportion of distraction-related crashes."

Driving is not the only activity where new tech puts kids at risk. Wechsler says that 1 in 6 teens reports being bullied via text and email, in chatrooms, and through other electronic media at some point in the 12 months before taking the survey. Girls were bullied more than twice as often as boys.

Biannual Report Documents Dangerous Behaviors

The CDC has produced the YRBS every two years since 1991 in order to identify, measure, and track trends in the behaviors that put high schoolers' lives and health in danger. More than 15,000 boys and girls responded to the 2011 national survey. Additional data came from 43 statewide questionnaires as well as from surveys conducted in 21 large urban school districts around the country.

The 168-page report is full of news both good and bad: Over the past two years, fewer students learned about AIDS and HIV infection from their teachers, more students are obese, and the number of suicide attempts rose. On the other hand, binge drinking decreased and more students ate their vegetables.

"Despite progress, there is still much work to do," says Wechsler. "Teens are still engaging in risky behaviors."

The Good and the Bad

Here is a selection of the report's findings:

  • 87.5% of teen bicyclists rarely or never wear helmets.
  • Nearly 10% of teens had been physically abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • Eight percent had been forced to have sex.
  • One out of five students had been bullied at school.
  • Nearly 16% of students had considered suicide, and nearly 8% attempted suicide in the previous 12 months.
  • Eighteen percent of students said they had smoked cigarettes in the previous month. Twenty-three percent had smoked marijuana.
  • Nearly 40% of teens report drinking alcohol recently, compared to 50% 10 years ago.
  • One in five students had taken prescription drugs such as Ritalin and OxyContin without a prescription.
  • One-third of students report being sexually active. Sixty percent of them use condoms. About 13% use no protection at all.
  • Thirteen percent of students missed breakfast every day in the seven days prior to the survey.
  • Just under 50% of students got 60 or more minutes of exercise five days a week.
  • The number of teens who have had asthma rose from 18.9% to 23% between 2003 and 2011. About 12% say they have it now.
  • About 11% of teens report regularly using sunscreen, while 13% have used an indoor tanning bed at least once over the past year.


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SOURCES: CDC telebriefing, June 7, 2012. Howell Wechsler, EdD, MPH, director, Division of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC. News release, CDC. CDC: "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, United States 2011." CDC: "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System: 2011 National Overview."

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