Study: Texting drivers are more dangerous than talkers

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from Network World.

You obviously don’t need to be told that texting and driving are two complex tasks that don’t mix well. But a new study by University of Utah researchers sheds light on why and finds that this activity is even more dangerous than talking on a cell phone while driving.

Based on studying behaviors in a driving simulator, University of Utah researchers used a high-fidelity driving simulator to find that texting drivers had more crashes, responded more slowly to brake lights on vehicles in front of them, and showed worse forward and lateral control than drivers who either talked on cell phones or drove without doing either. 

Texting has emerged as the most urgent of driver distractions, with advocates, regulators and government officials calling for action of some kind. In November the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Department of Transportation announced a working group to come up with technology-based solutions for distracted driving. Texting bans have been enacted in some U.S. cities and states, and some Canadian provinces after accidents linked to the practice began to rise.

The Utah researchers found evidence that the attention patterns for texters is different from that of talkers. Drivers who are talking “apparently attempt to divide attention between a phone conversation and driving, adjusting the processing priority of the two activities depending on task demands,” according to the researchers. 

But texting “requires drivers to switch their attention from one task to the other.” That switch creates “substantially slower” overall reaction times compared to talking on a cell phone. Further, the type of texting activity also makes a difference: reading messages slowed braking times more than composing them, the study found. 

For the Utah study, researchers selected 20 men and 20 women between the ages of 19 and 23, all experienced texters with an average of just under 5 years of driving experience.  All of the participants were experienced texters. Each one did two tasks on a high fidelity simulator: one was a straight drive, the second involved driving and texting. The researchers compared such things as brake onset time, following distance, lane maintenance, and collisions.

Texting led to a “substantial” increase in the risk of a crash. The study found that drivers’ median reaction time increased by 9 percent when talking on a phone, compared to the driving-only condition, but jumped by 30 percent when they were texting. Texters tended to decrease their minimum following distance and showed slower reaction times. Drivers who were texting were six times more likely to be involved in a virtual ‘crash’ than those who were concentrating just on driving.

The study cites data from the CTIA that more than 1 trillion text messages were sent in 2008 in the U.S. 

The study was published in “Human Factors,” a professional journal of the Human Facotrs and Ergonomic Society, written by Frank Drews and colleagues at the Human. A copy of the paper, “Text Messaging During Simulated Driving,” by Frank A. Drews, Hina Yazdani, Celeste N. Godfrey, Joel M. Cooper, and David L. Strayer, all of the University of Utah, is available for download. 

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers additional information on cell phone use while driving.

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