The findings released Thursday are the first federal statistics on how common the dangerous habit is in teens. Distracted driving deaths are most common in teens, blamed for about 16 percent of teen motor vehicle deaths.
Focusing on a cellphone instead of the road leads to delayed reaction times, lane swerves and other lapses with sometimes fatal consequences, experts say.
Thirty-nine states ban texting for all age groups, and an additional five states outlaw it for novice teen drivers. And authorities are increasingly cracking down. In the last two weeks, teens in Missouri and Massachusetts have been sentenced to jail — one for a year — for fatal accidents involving texting.
For the survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year questioned more than 15,000 public and private high school students across the country. Some earlier studies had suggested teen texting while driving was becoming common, though perhaps not quite so high.
Still, the numbers aren't really surprising, said Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington. She studies how teens use technology.
A typical teen sends and receives about 100 text messages a day, and it's the most common way many kids communicate with their peers.
"A lot of teens say 'Well, if the car's not moving and I'm at a stoplight or I'm stuck in traffic, that's OK,'" said Lenhart, who has done focus groups with teens on the topic.