Washington — About 3 percent of Americans behind the wheel at any given daytime moment are also talking on hand-held cell phones, the government says in its first on-the-street survey of phone use in vehicles.
Rates nearly doubled outside of rush hour and were higher among women, whites and drivers of vans and SUVs, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.
The survey estimates about 500,000 drivers are using hand-held cell phones at any point during the day. That number excludes "hands free" headsets that some drivers use.
"We knew how many people carried phones, but we really didn't have any idea how many were using cell phones at any given time," said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson. Tyson said similar surveys will be conducted to determine if usage increases in future years.
NHTSA data collectors observed more than 12,000 vehicles at 640 intersections around the country last fall. The survey had a margin of error of 1 percentage point.
Researchers found that:
4.8 percent of people driving vans and SUVs used cell phones on the road.
1.9 percent of pickup drivers used the mobile devices.
Women use their cell phones more than men, 3.4 percent to 2.7 percent.
At any given time, 3.7 percent of white drivers are using cell phones, compared with 2.3 percent of black drivers and 1.7 percent of people of other races.
Rates of cellular phone use are slightly higher in suburban areas than in rural areas, 3.4 percent compared with 3 percent respectively.
"It's an interesting observation, except it doesn't tell us if the cell phone is a contributor to crashes, and that's what's important," said AAA spokesman Mantill Williams. AAA runs a public service campaign to encourage drivers to pull over when using their phones, but does not support cell phone bans.
There is no reliable source of information on the role of cell phones in crashes since most accident reports do not document usage.
NHTSA estimates that some form of driver distraction including talking, eating, reading or even changing radio stations is involved in 20 percent to 30 percent of all crashes.