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Many older drivers hop on information highway

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 9:06 p.m.

Americans continue to surf while driving.

The number of drivers who report using their cellphones to access the Internet while behind the wheel continues to rise, to a point where nearly one of four drivers are going online while driving, according to a national survey that has tracked the potentially deadly practice over the past five years.

Insurer State Farm began asking drivers in 2009 whether they went online while driving. The percentage of drivers who said they do so has nearly doubled, from 13 percent in 2009 to 24 percent this year. Among drivers 18-29, that number rose from 29 percent to 49 percent.

The percentages of people who read or respond to email, and who read or update social media networks while driving, also jumped.

Most research on distracted driving — and most laws against it — have focused on texting while driving, which makes the risk of a crash 23 times greater than not doing so, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Research at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that reading or sending a text takes a driver's eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds — long enough to cover the length of a football field at 55 mph. A 2009 study by Road and Driver magazine found that the reaction times of two drivers were faster when they were drunk than when reading or sending texts.

The increases are driven largely by the growing use of smartphones among drivers 40 and older, says Chris Mullen, State Farm's director of technology research. “It's not just a youthful problem.”

In the past three years, the sharpest increases in smartphone ownership were among older drivers. The percentage of drivers 40-49 who own smartphones rose from 47 percent in 2011 to 82 percent in 2013; for those 50-64, it went from 44 percent to 64 percent, and for those 65 and older, from 23 percent to 39 percent.

Perhaps reflecting the nation's sustained campaign against texting while driving, fewer people are doing that behind the wheel even as surfing the Web rises. The percentage of people who report texting while driving rose slightly over the past five years, from 31 percent to 35 percent of all drivers. Among those 18-29, the number who report doing so has decreased, from 71 percent to 69 percent.

Although texting while driving is regarded by many as a phenomenon affecting primarily younger drivers, the survey confirms a different reality. Half of drivers 30-39; 31 percent of those 40-49; and 19 percent of those 50-64 said they text while driving.

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