Worst US States for Dangerous Teen Driving and Texting Revealed

As many as 38 percent of teenagers text while driving, researchers have warned. South Dakota had the highest rate of teen texting and driving in the 35 states assessed, at 64 percent, in contrast with Maryland, the lowest at 26 percent.

North Dakota at 58 percent landed at second in the top five, followed by Montana at 55 percent, Wyoming at 52 percent, and Nebraska at 50.

Researchers analyzed data on 101,397 high school students aged 14 years old and above across 35 states from the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The study was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The results are particularly concerning as distracted driving heightens the risk of crashing up to nine times, the study authors said. Texting while at the wheel is particularly risky because it averts the eyes, hands and mind from the road.

Almost two in five respondents texted while driving at least once in the month prior to completing the survey. But the rates of distracted handling of a phone while driving are likely to be far higher as researchers only asked the teens if they emailed or texted while driving, meaning they may have left out instances of using social media, calling, or other apps at the wheel.

The lower the minimum driving age, the higher the likelihood teens would text while driving, at 20 percent in states with a permit at 14 to 15 years of age, 16 percent in those with 15 to 16 as the minimum age, and 13 percent in states where the driving age started at 16.

Dr. Motao Zhu, principal investigator at the Center for Injury Research and Policy, The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital​, explained to Newsweek: "The top five highest texting while driving among high school student drivers (Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska) are rural states with a high percent of high school student drivers and students can get their learner's permit before age 15."

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Age and ethnicity also appeared to play a role. White teenagers were more likely to text and drive when compared to African American and Hispanic young people, at 19 percent, 12 percent and 11 percent respectively. And rates of the behaviour doubled when a teenager reached the age of 15 or 16 years old.

The researchers also found the more risky driving behaviors a teenager engaged in, the more like they were to text while driving. Teenagers who didn't wear seatbelts, for instance, were over a fifth more likely to text while driving. And those who drank alcohol and drove were almost twice as likely.

The onus to tackle distracted driving lies with parents as much as teenagers. "Parents have a role to play to keep teens and other drivers safer on the road," said Zhu. "Parents must be a good role model. Drive distraction-free. Don't use your cellphone while driving. Parents can also set clear rules even after their teen gets his/her license. No cellphone use while driving."

Dr. Catherine McDonald, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and a senior fellow with the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who was not involved in the the study told Newsweek: "As we gather data to track cell phone use while driving, we want to also ask about details related to cell phone use behaviors—such as reading or writing messages, and the other ways they may be using their phones—like the messaging apps, social media and pictures.

"We also want to gather information about other important factors related to the driving situation, such as whether the vehicle was stopped or moving, and of what proportion of their drive they are using their cell phone."

Percentage of high school students aged 14 years and up texting or emailing while driving by state, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2015

  • Alabama - 43%
  • Alaska - 35%
  • Arkansas - 40%
  • California - 32%
  • Connecticut - 30%
  • Delaware - 37%
  • Florida - 37%
  • Hawaii - 40%
  • Idaho - 49%
  • Illinois - 42%
  • Indiana - 44%
  • Kentucky - 37%
  • Maryland - 26%
  • Massachusetts - 40%
  • Michigan - 39%
  • Mississippi - 43%
  • Missouri - 47%
  • Montana - 55%
  • Nebraska - 50%
  • Nevada - 40%
  • New Hampshire - 44%
  • New Mexico - 38%
  • New York - 30%
  • North Carolina - 38%
  • North Dakota - 58%
  • Oklahoma - 44%
  • Pennsylvania - 35%
  • Rhode Island - 45%
  • South Carolina - 38%
  • South Dakota - 64%
  • Tennessee - 36%
  • Vermont - 33%
  • Virginia - 31%
  • West Virginia - 36%
  • Wyoming - 52%

This article has been updated with comment from Catherine McDonald.