Although cell phone use is increasingly mentioned as a factor in car crashes, a “surprising” new study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill shows only 3.1 percent of North Carolina drivers are talking on cell phones at any given time. (That translates into 238,774 Tar Heel motorists.)

North Carolina’s numbers are consistent with national studies, says Donald Reinfurt, deputy director of UNC’s Highway Safety Research Center. Still, “people we’ve discussed these numbers with have been surprised,” he adds. “Almost everybody thinks the rate is much higher.”

An analysis of accident reports from the state Highway Patrol showed about one in 600 car crashes in North Carolina involved the use of a cell phone. But Reinfurt says researchers consider that “a serious underestimate” because drivers will rarely admit to police that they were talking on phones at the time of an accident. A computer search of all state car crash reports by UNC researchers found that between 1996 and 2000, mention of cell phone use leaped by 90 percent–from 22 in 1996 to 231 in the first eight months of 2000.

Traffic monitors posted at 85 sites across the state found 3.1 percent of moving vehicles had drivers who were chatting on the phone. The UNC study found that drivers who were using cell phones while stopped at intersections were more likely to be young, white and driving a sport utility vehicle.

Reinfurt’s conclusion? “The risk now posed by cell phones will undoubtedly grow as cars and other vehicles increasingly come equipped with other distracting electronic devices such as information and satellite guidance systems and even fax machines.”