Several months ago, while driving on Rte. 9 at the 45 mile an hour speed limit, I found my car being followed much too closely by another vehicle. When I glanced in the rear view mirror, I could see the head of the young male driver looking down for some seconds and then up —repeatedly. It only took me a few of the down -up motions to realize he was either reading or sending a text message. I signaled right and turned off the road at the first available opportunity. Has this ever happened to you? I can state unequivocally that it’s a pretty scary experience. As if you are foreseeing a serious rear-end collision about to happen. And you are driving the car that is going to be crashed into.
Texting is a relatively new phenomenon that is growing at exponential speed. People text while taking walks, sitting on buses and subways. eating in restaurants and riding bicycles. It’s the latest technological advance in communication. You don’t have to call. Just send a text message. Only your thumbs will know the difference.
Ever since the arrival of cell phones, studies have proven that talking on cell phones while driving is dangerous. This is true whether the phone is hand-held or not. The diversion of attention from the road is the key factor and distraction occurs whether one hand or both are off the wheel. When the driver becomes engaged in conversation, either civil or heated, there is a loss of concentration and observation of other drivers and traffic signs.
Texting is emerging as even more dangerous than using a cell phone according to recently released studies. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute measured the time drivers took their eyes from the road to send or receive text messages. The l8 month study followed more than l00 drivers of long-haul trucks, whose cabs had been outfitted with video cameras. They were tracked for three million miles as they delivered frozen food, furniture and other goods across the country. The cost of $6 million was funded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, whose mission is the improvement of safety in trucks and buses.
The study found that when the drivers were sending or receiving text messages, they typically took their eyes off the road for five seconds. At normal highway speeds, five seconds translates into the length of a football field in distance. The resultant collision risk was 23 times greater when they were texting. Rick Hanowski, who oversaw the study, said, “If you’re not watching the road for five seconds, it’s a crash waiting to happen.” Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Institute said of texting while driving, “You should never do this. It should be illegal.”
At present, 36 states do not ban texting while driving; 14 states do, including California, Alaska, Louisiana and New Jersey. Texting is so new that many police departments are not collecting data on accidents related to texting or talking on cell phones. It is important to note that researchers of other studies said that although trucks take longer to stop and are less maneuverable, the findings applied to drivers of cars as well.
At the University of Utah, a study was conducted over 18 months with college students texting while in a driving simulator. The results showed an eight times greater crash risk when texting than not texting. The study, submitted for publication in The Journal for Human Factors, found that drivers took their eyes off the road for around five seconds — the same length of time as the truckers.
David Strayer, a professor who was the co-author of the Utah Report, saw two possible reasons for the lower risk of a crash than the truckers study: trucks are harder to maneuver and stop, and college students might be better at multitasking. Strayer commented, “You’re off the charts in both cases. It’s crazy to be doing it.”
Virginia Tech conducted a follow-up study with the focus on texting among teenagers driving light vehicles. Preliminary results from this study show risk levels for teenage texters about the same as for the truck drivers. Earlier field and laboratory studies that delved into drivers talking on cell phones while driving showed a crash risk as four times more likely. And a Virginia Tech study that videotaped car drivers found that dialing the cell phone brought a crash three times more likely.
Researchers have done studies on all types of driving distractions: eating, drinking, combing one’s hair, putting on lipstick, turning to talk to someone in the back seat. They do not agree about whether field studies are more valuable than laboratory simulations. However, they do agree that texting is a much greater risk to drivers than other distractions. The AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety published polling data that shows 87 percent of people believe that drivers texting or e-mailing are a “very serious” safety threat. This is close to the 90 percent who consider drunken drivers a threat. 2,501 drivers were surveyed this past spring and 95 percent called texting “unacceptable behavior”. It is ironic that 21 percent of drivers said they had recently texted or e-mailed while driving. About 50 percent of the drivers 16 to 24 said they had texted while driving compared to 22 percent of drivers 35 to 44.
Robert Smith, 22, a recent college graduate says he does text while driving, even though he agrees it is a serious risk. “I put the phone on top of the steering wheel and text with both thumbs”, he said, describing exchanges of ten messages or more at a time. “I’ll look up and realize there’s a car sitting there and swerve around it.” He was not part of the AAA survey and said he was surprised at the findings. However, he was not convinced to stop texting. “I’m pretty sure that someday it’s going to come back and bite me.” The question his comment raises goes far beyond what will happen to him. It is whether his texting will prove dangerous or deadly to another driver and passengers when he crashes into their car.
………………………………………………………………………….Joyce S. Anderson