New Study Shows Drivers Double Reaction Time When Texting

Texting while drivingA new study by researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) shows that drivers were twice as slow to react when they were texting while navigating a test track and were 11 times more likely not to notice a flashing yellow light that represented a roadway hazard.

The study, which claims to be the first published in the U.S. to examine the effects of reading and sending text messages on motorists in an actual driving environment, also found that drivers were less able to stay in their lane, stop swerving or maintain a constant speed.

“Most research on texting and driving has been limited to driving simulators. This study involved participants driving an actual vehicle,” Christine Yager, a researcher at TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety and manager of the study. “So one of the more important things we know now that we didn’t know before is that response times are even slower than we previously thought.”

Distracted Driving Contributes to Accident Rate and Insurance Costs

Texting, talking on cellphones and other forms of distracted driving are to blame for thousands of deaths and injuries each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

NHTSA says that in 2009, nearly 5,500 people were killed and another nearly 450,000 were injured on U.S. roadways as a result of distracted driving, which can also include activities such as eating or drinking behind the wheel and changing radio stations.

Thirty-four states, the District of Columbia and Guam have laws barring texting by drivers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Nine states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands have outlawed all hand-held cellphone use on the part of motorists.

Safety officials say teenagers are most likely to text and engage in other distracted driving, which is one of the reasons young motorists are considered a high risk auto insurance group. That can make affordable insurance premiums hard to find for families with teenage drivers.

Researchers Quantify Delay in Reaction Time

TTI researchers put 42 drivers between the ages of 16 and 54 behind the wheel on a driving course on a 2000-acre former Air Force base with long concrete runways and plenty of open space.

Participants started off in a laboratory, where they typed a fairy tale or other story into a smart phone and read and answered questions about another story. Then they drove on a course made up of an open section and another section lined by construction barrels—first without texting, then while repeating both lab tests. The time it took each driver to react to a periodically flashing light was recorded throughout the exercise.

Drivers’ reaction times while not using the phones were typically between one and two seconds, according to researchers. But while texting, those times slowed to at least three to four seconds, and vehicle operators were more than 11 times more likely to miss the flashing light completely.

The study also showed that texting made motorists less able to safely maintain their lane position, and they swerved more on the open sections of the course than on the barreled sections.

Researchers found that the greatest impairment in response time was caused by writing a text, but said that differences between writing and reading messages while driving was insignificant. The study authors say their findings are applicable to other driver distractions such as checking email or social media.

Previous Research May Have Underestimated Texting’s Effects

The study, which was sponsored by the Southwest University Transportation Center, suggests that previous research into slower reaction times associated with texting and driving may have underestimated the extent of the problem, according to researchers.

Researchers said previous studies conducted in the U.S. have used driving simulators instead of road courses, likely because of the danger involved in gauging the effects of using actual vehicles.

The closed course allowed researchers to recreate some realistic conditions, but motorists were told to drive 30 mph and the course did not include hills, traffic or any other objects apart from the construction zone barrels, so drivers encountered fewer demands than they normally would in the real world.

“It is frightening to think of how much more poorly our participants may have performed if the driving conditions were more consistent with routine driving,” the researchers wrote.

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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