It's prom time: Don't text and drive

More teens are beginning to realize the dangers of texting while driving. That's a good start toward halting a dangerous practice that needs as much vigilance as stopping drunk driving or fastening seat belts.

Teens are talented texters. They can text in their laps at the dinner table. They can text while talking to a friend, on the phone, or watching a movie.

But about half of them wisely believe that texting on cellphones while driving is a distraction – up from 30 percent in 2005, according to a new poll by the Allstate Foundation.

That greater awareness is something to build on in this season of proms and graduations, when teens and parents should be extra vigilant about risky driving. No alcohol – and no texting behind the wheel, either.

Texting while driving is far more distracting than eating, talking, or tuning the radio. It involves a triple diversion of eyes, hands, and thinking. It increases the risk of accident by 23 times, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI).

Car accidents are the leading cause of teen death, and the number of crashes involving complex tasks is growing exponentially, according to VTTI.

Far more teenagers admit to texting when driving than adults – 46 percent versus 21 percent, says AAA. Teens think they're better multitaskers. They have a hard time ignoring incoming texts. And many think they text without looking at the keyboard.

Not true, says VTTI. They still take their eyes off the road long enough for conditions to change without them being able to react quickly. Looking away for nearly five seconds at 55 miles per hour equates to driving the length of a football field in that time. Some teens in North Carolina and Vermont can see the risks for themselves through a program where they navigate a golf cart on an obstacle course while texting.

The nation is waking up to the danger of texting while behind the wheel. Twenty-three states, plus Washington, D.C., and Guam, ban texting while driving. Public service ads target teens. Cellphone "apps" can block phones in moving cars.

But like the campaign against drunken driving, this one needs a full-court press: laws, enforcement, and driver's ed. Adults must be role models, and teens, peer models. Switching off phones must become as automatic as clicking on a seat belt.

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