RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LYNN NEARY, host:
And I'm Lynn Neary. Today in Your Health, we have a pair of stories that look at teenagers and risk-taking. It's a necessary part of growing up and becoming independent, but teens and risks can be a dangerous combination. Teen drivers who are the least experienced on the road are also big texters. We begin with NPR's Patti Neighmond, who talked to teens and asked experts what can be done to discourage distracted driving.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: Minnesota teenager Natalie Hayford says it's completely understandable why so many kids text, even when they're driving.
Ms. NATALIE HAYFORD: It's just so hard not to. You text message while you're doing anything else. People text message in school, when you're walking. You do it everything. And it's just habit, where they may not even think about text messaging while they're driving. They just do it.
NEIGHMOND: Amanda Lenhart has heard the same thing. She's with the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. She surveyed 800 teens and their parents in four cities about texting and driving. During her focus groups with teens, Lenhart was amazed to discover kids were secretly texting under the table while talking to researchers.
Ms. AMANDA LENHART (Pew Research Center Internet and American Life Project): We asked them in our focus groups whether or not they ever turned their phones off, and the majority of teens there gave us looks of horror, as though they couldn't conceive of the idea of turning it off. They might put it on silent or vibrate, but they would never actually want to cut themselves off from that network of communication that the phone represented.
NEIGHMOND: Lenhart found, on average, teen text about 50 times a day. But some send more than 200. And one in four admitted texting while driving.
Sixteen-year-old Bethany Brown, of Cave Creek, Arizona wants to stop distracted driving. We caught up with her as she won a prize for a video she made warning kids about distracted driving. She thinks teens are aware of the danger.
Ms. BETHANY BROWN: But they think, oh, well, I have just one message. I can just do a quick text here. I'm at a stop light. It's not going to turn green anytime soon. They know the statistics and they know what can happen, but they don't think it'll happen to them.
NEIGHMOND: Bethany Brown's winning video shows a crash that follows after a teenager driver picks up a phone. The video then rewinds back to the beginning, showing the same kid ignoring ringing phone and driving safely down the street.
Federal research shows nearly 6,000 people were killed in 2008 in car crashes involved a distracted driver, though it's not clear how many of those distractions were due to cell phones or texting. Research on that isn't available yet.
In any case, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says laws are the way to stop people from texting and phoning while driving. So far, about half the states have cell phone bans. And LaHood says two federally funded pilot projects - one in Connecticut and one in New York - have stepped up police enforcement.
Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): Enforcement worked with seatbelt laws, and now 85 percent of the people use seatbelts. And people said you couldn't get drunk drivers off the road, but with strong enforcement, it's been done. Strong enforcement will get cell phones and BlackBerrys out of people's hands while they're driving.
NEIGHMOND: Technology might help, too. For example, software has been designed that would literally shut a phone down if it's used in a moving vehicle.
But the biggest influence on teens right now may be parents. Minnesota teen Natalie Hayford agrees. She's active with a student group against distracted driving.
Ms. HAYFORD: If parents aren't text messaging while driving and they never have and they don't speed or whatever, it's more likely the teen won't participate in those activities. So if a parent is always on their cell phone, the teen's like, oh, it's fine. My parents do it all the time. And if their parents haven't crashed, then it's kind of like, okay. It's not going to happen.
NEIGHMOND: Research hasn't been done to pin down the role of parents and distracted driving. But studies have shown that teens follow their parents' lead when it comes to reckless driving. Teens are more likely to get tickets or be involved in car crashes if their parents have.
And Amanda Lenhart's focus groups provide some evidence that kids are watching their parents, and not only as positive role models. Lenhart says some kids are actually scared when driving with their parents.
Ms. LENHART: They would tell stories about their parents' texting with the phone while trying to drive with their knees. They would talk about other ways in which parents were distracted behind the wheel, including using GPS or trying to use a walkie-talkie function on a phone, or make calls.
Mr. DON BROWN: Well, I used to use it a lot, until Bethany entered that contest.
NEIGHMOND: Don Brown is the father of teenage video producer, Bethany. Encouraged by his daughter, he's put his cell phone away while driving.
Mr. BROWN: I really haven't noticed that big of a difference in productivity. I mean, I don't think I've missed anything by not really answering a phone that I couldn't pick up later.
NEIGHMOND: It wasn't easy, says Brown, but he's gotten used to it. And now, like his daughter, he encourages others to do the same.
Bethany Brown's video starts airing on television nationwide this month.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.