It doesn’t take much research to figure out that driving and text-messaging is not a wise combination. But a new report is among the first to demonstrate just how distracting it can be to multitask behind the wheel. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute conducted several high-tech, “naturalistic” studies monitoring truck drivers by video camera as they covered more than 6 million miles. (The authors have said they believe the results are applicable to all drivers). While the report has not formally been released, its initial findings showed that drivers who took their eyes off the road for any of a variety of activities, such as answering a phone call, were more likely to get into a crash or near crash. But by far, the most dangerous—and potentially lethal—activity was text-messaging.
1. Texting drivers could prompt a “crash epidemic”: Truck drivers were 23.2 times more likely to get into a crash or near crash than drivers who weren’t distracted. This correlates to the length of time a texting driver’s eyes were off the road — almost five seconds, long enough to cover a football field at highway speeds. Given the increasing popularity of texting — it’s grown tenfold in the last three years, by one count — it could swiftly become an enormous peril to road safety.
2. Talking on cell phones is not especially hazardous — but dialing them is: Contrary to some conventional wisdom, the Virginia Tech study found that truck drivers did not have a higher crash risk when they simply spoke on the phone. But any time they took their eyes off the road — to reach for the phone or to dial it — the risk rose, by as much as 6.7 times. One potential consequence: vaunted headsets and hands-free devices promoted for automobiles may not offer much safety, as they don’t address the riskiest elements of cell-phone use.
3. Lawmakers should ban texting while driving, and all cell-phone use for teen drivers: The study warns that danger lurks as today’s text-happy teens become a larger proportion of drivers on the road. Drawing on earlier research, they also report that teens are four times more likely to get into an accident related to overall cell-phone use than adult drivers.
This research confirms what common sense already tells us — texting behind the wheel is a really bad idea. Experience suggests that irresponsible drivers don’t particularly care what the law has to say.