If you use a cell phone, chances are you’re aware of “text messaging”—brief messages limited to 160 characters that can be sent or received on all modern mobile phones. Texting, also known as SMS (Short Message Service), is constantly on the rise. Last June, more than 196 billion text messages were sent or received in the US, up nearly 50% from June 2009. Undoubtedly, more than a few of those messages are being sent by people while driving their cars. Is texting while driving a dangerous idea? Let’s conduct a test.
Meet our two guinea pigs: Jordan Brown, 22 and Eddie Alterman, age 37; Fred Austin was the tester.
Previous academic studies conducted in vehicle simulators have shown that texting while driving impairs the driver’s abilities. But as far as we know, no study has been conducted in a real vehicle being driven. The test also compares the results of texting to the effects of drunk driving, done on the same day, with the same two drivers, and under the exact same conditions.
To keep things simple, the test was done focusing solely on the driver’s reaction times to a light mounted on the windshield at eye level, meant to simulate a lead car’s back brake lights. Wary of the potential damage to man and machine, all of the driving was conducted in a straight line. A taxiway adjacent to an 11,800-foot runway that used to be home to a squadron of B-52 bombers was rented for the experiment. Granted, a much safer place than any real roadway.
Given the prevalence of the BlackBerry, iPhone, and other text-friendly mobile phones, the test subjects had devices with full “qwerty” keypads and used text-messaging phones familiar to them. Brown, age 22, armed with an iPhone, would represent the younger crowd. The older demographic was covered by Eddie Alterman (259 in dog years), using a Samsung Alias.
A Honda Pilot served as the test vehicle. When the red light on the windshield lit up, the driver was to hit the brakes. The person riding shotgun (Austin in this case) would use a hand-held switch to trigger the red light and monitor the driver’s results. A Racelogic VBOX III data logger (or data recorder, an electronic device that records data over time, or in relation to location) combined and recorded the test data from three areas: vehicle speed via the VBOX’s GPS antenna; brake-pedal position and steering angle via the Pilot’s OBD II port; and the red light’s on/off status through an analog input.
Each trial would have the driver respond five times to the light, and the slowest reaction time (the amount of time between the activation of the light and the driver hitting the brakes) was dropped.
First, both drivers’ reaction times were tested at 35 mph and 70 mph to get baseline readings. Then the driving procedure was repeated while they read a text message aloud. This was followed by a trial with the drivers typing the same message they had just received.
Both of our lab rats were instructed to use their phones exactly as they would on a public road, which, if Jordan’s mom or Eddie’s wife are reading this, they, of course, never do.
Our test subjects then got out of the vehicle and concentrated on getting slightly, hum, intoxicated. They wanted something that would work quickly: screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice) were perfect. Between the two of them, they knocked back all but three ounces of a fifth of a bottle of Smirnoff.
Soon they were laughing and telling about some previous time they got drunk that was totally awesome. Then they blew into a breath-alcohol analyzer until they reached the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content. Then they sat behind the wheel and ran the light-and-brake test without any texting distraction.
The results, though not surprising, were eye-opening. Young Brown’s baseline reaction time at 35 mph of 0.45 second worsened to 0.57 while reading a text, improved to 0.52 while writing a text, and returned almost to the baseline while impaired by alcohol, at 0.46. At 70 mph, his baseline reaction was 0.39 second, while the reading (0.50), texting (0.48), and drinking (0.50) numbers were similar. But the averages don’t tell the whole story. Looking at Brown’s slowest reaction time at 35 mph, he traveled an extra 21 feet (more than a car length) before hitting the brakes while reading and went 16 feet longer while texting. At 70 mph, a vehicle travels 103 feet every second, and his worst reaction time while reading at that speed put him about 30 feet (31 while typing) farther down the road versus 15 feet while drunk.
Not-that-old older Alterman fared much, much worse. While reading a text and driving at 35 mph, his average baseline reaction time of 0.57 second nearly tripled, to 1.44 seconds. While texting, his response time was 1.36 seconds. These figures correspond to an extra 45 and 41 feet, respectively, before hitting the brakes. His reaction time after drinking averaged 0.64 second and, by comparison, added only seven feet. The results at 70 mph were similar: Alterman’s response time while reading a text was 0.35 second longer than his base performance of 0.56 second, and writing a text added 0.68 second to his reaction time. But his intoxicated number increased only 0.04 second over the base score, to a total of 0.60 second.
As with the younger driver, “older” Alterman’s slowest reaction times were a grim scenario. He went more than four seconds before looking up while reading a text message at 35 mph and over three and a half seconds while texting at 70 mph. Even in the best of his bad reaction times while reading or texting, Alterman traveled an extra 90 feet past his baseline performance; in the worst case, he went 319 feet farther down the road. Moreover, his two-hands-on-the-phone technique resulted in some serious lane drifting.
The prognosis doesn’t improve when you look at the limitations of the road test: only using a straight road without any traffic, road signals, or pedestrians, and only looking at reaction times. Even though our young driver fared better than the already-balding Alterman, Brown’s method of holding the phone up above the dashboard and typing with one hand would make it difficult to do anything except hit the brakes. And if anything in the periphery required a response, well, both drivers would probably be - screwed.
Don't take the intoxicated results as acceptable just because they're a slight improvement over the texting numbers. They only look better because the texting results are so horrendously bad. The buzzed Brown had to be told twice which lane to drive in, and in real life, that mistake could mean a head-on crash. And remember that the only measured responses to a red light - reduction in motor skills and cognitive power associated with impaired driving - were not really exposed here in the somewhat controlled test, on a closed circuit.
Texting is still in its formative period with respect to laws and opinions. A few jusrisdictions have passed ordinances against texting while driving. But even if sweeping legislation were passed to outlaw any typing behind the wheel, it would still be difficult to enforce the law. In the test, neither subject had any idea that using his phone would slow down his reaction time so much. Like most people, they think they’re pretty good drivers. Our results prove otherwise, at both city and highway speeds. The key element to driving safely is keeping your eyes and your mind on the road, and your hands on the wheel.
Unfortunately, as you see on the map below, Florida (and many others) has no legislation regarding the issue of texting while driving.
Socially and legally, drunk driving is completely unacceptable, objectionable, intolerable, abominable, dreadful, horrendous, shocking.
Let's hope that texting while driving becomes severely banned, soon.
Text messaging distracts any driver from that primary task. So the next time you’re tempted to text, tweet, e-mail, or otherwise type while driving, either ignore the urge or pull over. We don’t want you rear-ending us.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has put together a few interesting facts about this problem: http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving/index.html
English filmmaker Stuart Fox made a clip showing a car crash involving a teenager driving while texting, a hard hitting road safety drama called "COW".
The link below is extremely graphic, not intended for children.
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