WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most U.S. motorists surveyed acknowledged few situations in which they would not use a cell phone or text while behind the wheel although they support measures to curb both practices, data released on Thursday by the Transportation Department showed.
The findings were part of a study of driver behavior launched to help regulators understand "why some people continue to make bad decisions" about driving while distracted, officials said.
"What's clear from all of the information we have is that driver distraction continues to be a major problem," said David Strickland, the top auto safety regulator as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The survey results were released as Strickland's agency finalized traffic fatality figures showing 32,855 people were killed on U.S. roads in 2010, about 1,000 fewer than the 33,808 deaths in 2009.
Fatalities declined even though drivers on U.S. roads traveled 46 billion more miles last year, an increase of 1.6 percent.
The fatality rate of 1.10 deaths per 100 million miles traveled compares to rate of 1.15 in 2009.
Distracted driving deaths totaled 3,092 last year but the agency believes the total could be higher due to an unwillingness of drivers to always admit behavior, a lack of witnesses to a crash in some cases or the death of the driver.
NHTSA said that 5 percent of motorists observed at any one time last year were talking on a hand-held cell phone, unchanged from 2009.
Key findings of the national distracted driving survey show that more than three quarters of motorists say they are willing to answer a call while behind the wheel and rarely consider traffic conditions when deciding whether to pick up their phone. Many said they would send a text while driving.
A third of the same drivers said, however, that they would feel unsafe as a passenger if their driver was using a phone.
(Reporting by John Crawley; editing by Philip Barbara)