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Teen texting behind wheel common, study finds

42% in Mass. say they do it

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / June 8, 2012
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Forty-two percent of Massachusetts high school students who drive admit they text while behind the wheel, according to a state survey to be released Friday.

The report, from the state’s Department of Public Health, also finds that texting while driving is most common among high school seniors, with 61 percent of drivers admitting to the behavior, more than three times the percentage for sophomore drivers.

A national survey released Thursday also found high rates of texting while driving. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that 33 percent of high school students said they texted or e-mailed while driving - although the wording of the question differed from the Massachusetts survey, making the results hard to compare.

The findings come a day after Massachusetts made headlines for the conviction of a Haverhill teenager who caused a fatal crash while texting - the first such verdict in the state.

Aaron Deveau, 18, was sentenced to a year in prison on Wednesday for the February 2011 accident that killed 56-year-old Donald Bowley of New Hampshire.

The state survey queried nearly 5,400 high school students in the spring of 2011 on a wide variety of health and behavior issues, from cyber-bullying to perceptions of obesity.

It found that overall, 16 percent of Massachusetts high school students reported being a victim of electronic bullying, via e-mail, chat rooms, websites, or texting. Females were more than twice as likely as males to endure the assaults, the report found.

On weight issues, the survey found that not much has changed since 2003 - except perceptions.

Roughly a quarter of the state’s high school students over the past decade have been overweight or obese, but the percentage of those who view themselves with a weight problem has measurably declined during that time, with just 28 percent indicating it as an issue last year, down from 31 percent in 2003 - a statistically significant difference.

“Being overweight or obese has started to become the new normal,’’ said Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director of the state’s health department, noting that this change could mean fewer students are motivated to lose weight.

“The kids who were interviewed [in the survey], their whole lifetime has been during the time America was becoming more and more obese, so they don’t have anything outside that experience to reference,’’ she said.

The cornucopia of new data, she added, will help state officials target their battle plans for changing risky and unhealthy behaviors, especially the information about texting and cyber-bullying - problems that are detailed for the first time in the statewide survey, which is conducted every two years.

“Just telling students not to do something is not the most effective strategy, so we have to figure out ways to engage them and connect with them,’’ Smith said.

Public health campaigns that pinpointed other troubling behaviors, such as teen smoking and drunken driving, have successfully driven down rates over the past decade, and initiatives to stamp out cyber-bullying and texting while driving may borrow from those programs, she said.

One blueprint that may prove effective is the 1988 nationwide campaign designed by Harvard School of Public Health associate dean Jay A. Winsten for attacking drunken driving.

At that time, drunken driving was the number one cause of death among young adults, so Winsten recruited Hollywood and major television networks to shine a spotlight on the problem and to highlight a potential solution - the designated driver, who refrains from drinking so that he or she can safely transport friends home.

“We got 160 prime-time TV episodes over four TV seasons’’ to include the designated driver in their scripts, Winsten said.

“The drunk driving fatality curve dropped 25 percent over the next four years,’’ he said.

Winsten said social media, including Facebook and Twitter, could be helpful in mounting a campaign against texting while driving. He pointed to the viral success of the Kony 2012 social media campaign - a short film that highlighted Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony’s kidnapping of children for his army.

“There was so much attention to stopping one bad guy from kidnapping children in central Africa, we ought to be able to mobilize a sizeable media for generating interest in young people about texting while driving,’’ Winsten said.

State legislators have tried to address the problem, passing a 2010 law that banned any form of cellphone use by drivers under 18 and outlawed texting behind the wheel for adults, but they stopped short of banning all use of hand-held devices while driving.

Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, has pushed for hands-free legislation for a decade but came up one vote short in his amendment to the 2010 law.

He said the state’s current texting ban is hard to enforce because it allows hand-held devices, which makes it difficult for police to distinguish between dialing and texting.

“These new numbers beg the question that more needs to be done,’’ said Montigny, whose hands-free proposal is, once again, pending in the Legislature.

Roughly 44 states, including Massachusetts, have passed laws in the past couple of years that outlaw texting while driving for beginning teens, according to the CDC.

Ruth Shults, a senior researcher with the agency’s Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, said in a conference call with reporters that it is too soon to say whether those laws have had a measurable impact.

“There is no current evidence that those laws have reduced crashes,’’ Shults said.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar

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