The Dangers of Texting While Driving

Since the invention of the automobile, safety has always been paramount for auto engineers and designers. The Dangers of Texting While Driving; TJ Woods Insurance Agency; Worcester, Massachusetts Ironically, though, as cars are being fortified with more and more safety features (air bags on all sides, back-up cameras, special sensors), our driving habits are becoming more dangerous.  Speed limits are getting higher and the distractions built into cars are growing.   Perhaps drivers feel invincible because they do feel so safe in their cars.  Far too many emergency response officers can attest to what happens to drivers who feel they are invincible, though, and a large number of them were texting while driving.

Texting while driving is not a habit that’s restricted to teenagers.  Nearly every adult with a cell phone is guilty of texting while driving.  There have been petitions, campaigns, and even laws created to raise awareness of the dangers of texting while driving.  So what happened?  Drivers have tried to figure out a way to evade the law.  In Canada, texting while driving is so prevalent that there is now a “Crotches Kill” TV and radio ad campaign.  The idea is based on the premise that people are holding their cell phones in their laps and reading/texting with them there (out of sight of police) while they are driving.  Obviously it is physically impossible to look in your lap and look at the road at the same time.  People are still convinced, however, that they are hardly taking their eyes off the road when they are texting while driving.

To address the dangers of texting while driving and to prove what a difference a couple of seconds can make, Car And Driver Magazine conducted simulations in a real vehicle that was being driven.  The results are eye-opening and frightening.  If you still think texting while driving can be harmless from time to time, just take a look at this.


Texting While Driving: How Dangerous is it?

Unprotected text: We investigate if sending messages on your phone while driving is more LOL than OMFG.

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 (for short message service), is on the rise, up from 9.8 billion messages a month in December ’05 to 110.4 billion in December ’08. Undoubtedly, more than a few of those messages are being sent by people driving cars. Is texting while driving a dangerous idea? We decided to conduct a test.

Previous academic studies—much more scientific than ours—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 that is being driven. Also, we decided to compare the results of texting to the effects of drunk driving, on the same day and under the exact same conditions. Not surprisingly, Car and Driver doesn’t receive a lot of research grants.

To keep things simple, we would focus solely on the driver’s reaction times to a light mounted on the windshield at eye level, meant to simulate a lead car’s brake lights. Wary of the potential damage to man and machine, all of the driving would be done in a straight line. We rented the taxiway of the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport in Oscoda, Michigan, adjacent to an 11,800-foot runway that used to be home to a squadron of B-52 bombers. Given the prevalence of the BlackBerry, the iPhone, and other text-friendly mobile phones, the test subjects would have devices with full “qwerty” keypads and would be using text-messaging phones familiar to them. Web intern Jordan Brown, 22, armed with an iPhone, would represent the younger crowd. The older demographic would be covered by head honcho Eddie Alterman, 37 (or 259 in dog years), using a Samsung Alias. (Alterman also uses a BlackBerry for e-mail. We didn’t use it in the test.)

Our long-term Honda Pilot served as the test vehicle. When the red light on the windshield lit up, the driver was to hit the brakes. The author, riding shotgun, would use a hand-held switch to trigger the red light and monitor the driver’s results. A Racelogic VBOX III data logger 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.
Our test subjects then got out of the vehicle and concentrated on getting slightly intoxicated. They wanted something that would work quickly: screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice). Between the two of them, they knocked back all but three ounces of a fifth of Smirnoff. Soon they were laughing at all our jokes, asking for cigarettes, and telling us about some previous time they got drunk that was totally awesome. We had them blow into a Lifeloc FC10 breath-alcohol analyzer until they reached the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content. We then put them behind the wheel and ran the light-and-brake test without any texting distraction.First, we tested both drivers’ reaction times at 35 mph and 70 mph to get baseline readings. Then we repeated the driving procedure while they read a text message aloud (a series of Caddyshack quotes). 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 never do.

The results, though not surprising, were eye-opening. Intern 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 Jordan’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 Brown’s 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.

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, 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 our test. We were using a straight road without any traffic, road signals, or pedestrians, and we were only looking at reaction times. Even though our young driver fared better than the 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.

Also, don’t take the intoxicated results to be acceptable just because they’re an improvement over the texting numbers. They only look better because the texting results are so horrendously bad. The buzzed Jordan had to be told twice which lane to drive in, and in the real world, that mistake could mean a head-on crash. And we remind again that we only measured response to a light—the reduction in motor skills and cognitive power associated with impaired driving weren’t really exposed here.

Both socially and legally, drunk driving is completely unacceptable. Texting, on the other hand, is still in its formative period with respect to laws and opinion. A few jurisdictions 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.

We’re confident you would never consider drinking and driving, so why would texting while driving be acceptable?  Drinking and driving charges are usually called DUI/OUI (Driving/Operating Under the Influence) or DWI (Driving While Intoxicated).  When you are texting while driving, aren’t your actions being influenced by your diverted attention and where you’ve put your phone?  When you are texting while driving, aren’t you so intoxicated by what you’re reading and writing that you aren’t giving the road your full attention?In our test, neither subject had any idea that using his phone would slow down his reaction time so much. Like most folks, 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. 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.

If you know someone who’s guilty of texting while driving, please share this article with them.  Even though the Car And Driver article jokingly makes reference to rear-ending someone if you’re distracted, the reality is that the consequences could be much worse– even fatal.

If you have the misfortune of being in an accident for any reason, not just texting while driving, what can you expect from your automobile insurance coverage?  At TJ Woods Insurance Agency in Worcester, Massachusetts, we can help you determine the coverage that’s right for your vehicle and your situation.  We’ll also find the most affordable rates for you, so don’t be afraid to explore your options.  The insurance you’ve had for years may not be the best for you now.

Are you or is someone you know still guilty of texting while driving?  Which texts are the hardest to ignore?  Let us know in the comments section below.  We can’t stop the whole world from texting while driving (at least, not all at once), but it doesn’t hurt to try!