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Tests reveal dangers of texting while driving

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.”

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which represents state highway safety agencies, said it does not doubt the dangers of texting and driving but does not support a ban because it would be difficult to enforce.

“Highway safety laws are only effective if they can be enforced, and if the public believes they will be ticketed for not complying. To date, that has not been the case with many cell-phone restrictions,” said Vernon Betkey, the highway safety association’s chairman.

The legislation would require states to ban texting or eMailing while operating a moving vehicle or lose 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding. It would be patterned after the way Congress required states to adopt a national drunken driving ban.

The transportation secretary would be required to issue guidelines within six months of the measure becoming law, and states then would have two years to approve the bans on texting and driving. States could recover highway funds by passing the legislation following the two-year period.

The bill would target the activity in a moving vehicle only and would not prohibit a driver from texting or eMailing in a stopped car.
Texting while driving isn’t just worrying parents and school officials, but students as well. Rocky Kaller, 17, who will be a senior this year at the University School at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., wants to put the brakes on texting behind the wheel.

“Someone needs to do something about it, and if someone doesn’t, it’s just going to keep getting worse,” Kaller said, adding that research shows that texting or talking while driving slows a driver’s reaction time by 35 percent–nearly three times more than driving under the influence of alcohol.

Worried about the number of accidents and near-misses he’d seen, Kaller began Project Stop Texting and Talking in Cars (STATIC) last year, bringing driving simulators to his school to show his fellow students and the public how texting impairs driving. During a five-minute ride, drivers encounter rain, road debris, and other dangerous driving situations, all while trying to operate a cell phone.

“It’s impossible to be a defensive driver and stay safe if you’re not paying attention to the road,” Kaller said. “This project will be worth it if just one life is saved.”

Kaller presented his project to the United Way and is trying to make STATIC an element of the Florida course required by teenage drivers before they are issued a permit.

*Along with the District of Columbia, here, according to GHSA, are the 14 states that now or soon will ban texting while driving: Alabama, Arizona (effective October 2009),California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisianna, Maryland (effective October 2009), Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina (effective December 2009), Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.


Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

Governors Highway Safety Association

Project STATIC

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the GIS and Geographic Inquiry resource center. “Geospatial” technologies–which include geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), and remote sensing (RS) tools–are keeping drivers on track. Now, similar technologies in schools let you chart a course to the future of learning. Go to: GIS and Geographic Inquiry

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