PORTLAND — Safety officials told a Portland symposium today that one of the greatest threats to the lives of young people is texting while driving.

Ronald Medford, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told a gathering of about 150 people at the Ocean Gateway Terminal that the most likely cause of death for people between 12 and 33 is traffic crashes. Distracted driving – often the result of cell phone use – contributed to 16 percent of fatal crashes for people under 20, he said.

“It’s good kids. It’s great kids. It’s all kinds of kids making really bad decisions while driving,” Medford said.

The symposium included police officers, educators, driving instructors, health care professionals and people from the insurance industry.

Some people suggested a technological fix for the pervasive problem of texting while driving, but speakers said a more likely solution will be changing attitudes.

John Ulczycki, a vice president of the nonprofit National Safety Council, said people are much less likely to drive drunk or not use their seatbelts today than in years past because of education. The same can happen with cell phone use, he said.

The symposium sought to increase awareness and promote legislation that would create a separate law prohibiting texting while driving. Maine law currently prohibits driving distracted, which can include cell phone use. Advocates say specifically outlawing texting, which the other five New England states and a total of 30 states nationwide have done, would be more effective.

Some of the three dozen teenagers attending the symposium said speeches and statistics don’t carry as much weight as personal experiences. This afternoon, South Portland Officer Rocco Navarro was scheduled to lead a roundtable discussion with teens about the issue. Although back on light duty, Navarro continues to suffer from injuries received when his cruiser was slammed into by a driver who was using a cell phone. The driver failed to brake for the stopped cruiser despite its flashing blue emergency lights.