Two recent studies highlight the dangers of texting while driving in no uncertain terms, and they could influence how school-based driver’s education programs approach the topic.

Texting while driving increases the risk of a crash much more than previous studies have concluded, with motorists taking their eyes off the road longer than they do when talking or listening on their cell phones, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute said July 27.

The institute used cameras to continuously observe light-vehicle drivers and truckers for more than 6 million miles. It found that when drivers of heavy trucks texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when not texting.

Dialing a cell phone and using or reaching for an electronic device increased risk of collision about six times in cars and trucks, the study found.

Recent research using driving simulators suggested that talking and listening were as dangerous as texting, but the “naturalistic driving studies clearly indicate that this is not the case,” a news release from the institute said. And the risks of texting generally applied to all drivers, not just truckers, the researchers said.

Right before a crash or near collision, drivers spent nearly five seconds looking at their devices, which was enough time at 55 mph to cover more than the length of a football field.

“Talking or listening to a cell phone allowed drivers to maintain eyes on the road and were not associated with an increased safety risk to nearly the same degree,” the institute said. “These results show conclusively that a real key to significantly improving safety is keeping your eyes on the road.”

The institute recommended that texting be banned for all drivers and that all cell-phone use should be prohibited for newly licensed teen drivers. Fourteen states* already ban texting while driving.

The study also concluded that headset cell-phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use, because the primary risks associated with both are answering, dialing, and other tasks that take drivers’ eyes off the road.

Voice-activated systems are less risky if they are designed well enough so drivers do not have to take their eyes off the road often or for long periods, the researchers said.

A separate study by Car and Driver magazine, published in late June, demonstrated that texting while driving can be even more dangerous than driving while drunk.

All of the driving in the Car and Driver study was done in a straight line on an 11,800-foot runway. After conducting the texting tests on both subjects at 35 and 70 miles per hour, the subjects then drank alcoholic beverages until they reached the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content. Then, they went back behind the wheel and ran the identical test without any texting distractions.
The results showed that even on a straight road without any traffic, road signals, or pedestrians, and looking just at reaction times, the texting results were even worse than the alcoholic impairment results.

On the heels of these two studies, Democratic lawmakers called for all states to ban texting while driving or face cuts in highway funds, citing the need to reduce driver distraction and potential highway deaths and injuries.

“When drivers have their eyes on their cell phones instead of the road, the results can be dangerous and even deadly,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who unveiled new legislation July 29 with Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

Some critics have questioned whether the laws could be enforced– or if reckless driving statutes already cover texting behind the wheel.

Steve Largent, a former Oklahoma congressman who leads CTIA–The Wireless Association, said his organization supports “state legislative remedies to solve this issue. But simply passing a law will not change behavior. We also need to educate new and experienced drivers on the dangers of taking their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel.”