More New Jersey drivers than ever admit to sending text messages from behind the wheel, with 25% now saying that they have done so in the past few years, a 20% increase from last year, when 21% said that they had done so.  In 2008, only 15% of drivers said that they had sent a text while driving.  According to a recent study by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll, co-sponsored by the state’s Division of Highway Traffic Safety, despite this increase in texting and high levels of speeding among young people and commuters, New Jersey drivers say that their neighbors in New York are the worst behind a wheel.

In previous years, increases in texting were sparked by drivers under the age of 30, but this is no longer the case.  While the youngest drivers are more likely to text than any  other age group (56% of drivers under age 30 say that they’ve sent a text while behind the wheel), the increase in this year’s study can be attributed to drivers aged 30 to 60. In this year’s study, 37% of drivers 30 to 44 years of age say they’ve sent a text while driving, up 9 points from last year, and 17% of drivers 45 to 60 years of age say they’ve done so, up from 12% in 2009.  Among drivers between 30 and 60 years of age, the number who admit to texting while driving has increased dramatically since 2008.

“These figures reflect how much texting has become part of our lives, so much so that we’re even doing it in the driver’s seat,” said Dan Cassino, the director of experimental research for the PublicMind poll, and a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “As more people get used to texting, more are going to do it while driving, so these numbers are probably going to keep going up for some time.”

While texting behind the wheel is on the rise, the use of hand-held phones while driving in the Garden State is on the decline. This year, only 12% of New Jersey drivers say that they “very often” or “sometimes” talk on a hand-held cell while behind the wheel, down from 18% in 2009, and half of the 26% who admitted to doing so in 2007. The biggest contributor to this drop was a substantial decline in the use of hand-held phones by young drivers. This year, only 13% of drivers under age 30 said that they regularly talked on a hand-held phone while driving, compared to 33% last year. Some of this decline can be attributed to the belief that hands-free devices are safer: 79%of New Jersey drivers say that hand-held phones are more dangerous than hands-free devices, up from 67% in 2008.

“Most drivers don’t seem to understand that it isn’t holding the phone that’s the problem, but the mental and visual distraction caused by the conversation,” said Pam Fischer, the director of the state’s Division of Highway Traffic Safety. “If we’re replacing hand-held cell phone use with texting, which is more dangerous than driving drunk, we’re certainly not moving in the right direction.”

Younger drivers are not only more likely to be texting behind the wheel, they’re also more likely to be going over the speed limit while doing so: 35% of drivers under the age of 30 say that they speed on highways “most of the time,” compared to 26% of all drivers. And 1-in-3 (31%) of those young drivers admit they regularly go over 70 miles per hour on the highway.

Not surprisingly, these younger drivers also tend to think that they can go faster without having to worry about getting a ticket. Only 7% of those under the age of 30 say that the actual speed limit – the speed at which you can drive without getting a ticket – is below 70 mph. A majority (54%) say that it is somewhere between 70 and 74 mph, and nearly a third, 31%, say that it is over 75 mph.

“While younger drivers are more likely to be texting and speeding than any of the other age groups, we just have to hope that they’re not doing it at the same time,” said Cassino. “Any driver going 75 mph on the interstate while texting is a scary thing.”

But these unsafe behaviors are not limited to young drivers. Workers with long commutes are also more likely than others to speed, use hand-held cell phones and text while driving. A majority of drivers who travel more than 20 miles to work each way (58%) say that they regularly go over 65 mph on the highways, and a majority (71%) of those sometimes go over 70 mph. In contrast, only 38% of those who don’t drive to work (and 48% of those with shorter commutes) regularly drive over 65 mph. Additionally, 17% of drivers with long commutes talk on hand-held phones while on the road “very often” or “sometimes,” compared with just 7% of those who don’t drive to work. These same commuters are also 50% more likely than the average driver to text while behind the wheel, with 37% admitting that they’ve done so (compared to 25% of all drivers).  Not surprisingly, they’re also much more likely to have received a ticket: 15% of respondents with long commutes have been cited for speeding in the last three years, compared with 9% of all drivers, and just 6% of those who don’t drive to work.

“All of this suggests that commuters are much more likely to be multi-tasking behind the wheel,” said Cassino. “They’re trying to get as much done as they can before they arrive at the office or their home, and they want to get there as fast as they can.  It’s the combination of the two that’s dangerous and potentially deadly.”

While this may suggest that Garden State drivers have bad habits, a majority of drivers in New Jersey say that their neighbors in New York are worse. Asked to name which nearby state has the worst drivers, 56% say that it’s New York, with Pennsylvania coming in a distant second with 15%. And, even though it wasn’t an option on the survey, 14% say that New Jersey has the worst drivers of any state.

The Fairleigh Dickinson University survey was co-sponsored by the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety and carried out by telephone from May 2 through June 2 using a randomly selected sample of 953 New Jersey residents aged 17 and over who report they drive regularly, including an oversample of drivers under the age of 30. It has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.