Texting and Driving Greatly Increases Accidents, Study Shows

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-07-28 Print this article Print

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concludes drivers who send text messages run a crash risk over 20 times higher than that of drivers not using phones. The VTTI study also shows that drivers using headsets are just as likely to be involved in traffic accidents as drivers using handheld devices.

Sending text messages should be banned in moving vehicles for all drivers to avoid an epidemic of traffic crashes, according to a study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. VTTI's large-scale, naturalistic driving study (PDF) purports to be one of the clearest studies yet of driver distraction and cell phone use under real-world driving conditions.

Text messaging on a cell phone was associated with the highest risk of all cell phone-related tasks, VTTI said, a risk over 20 times worse than driving while not using a phone. The study shows sending text messages while driving involves the longest duration of time with eyes off the road, the equivalent of traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the roadway.

"Given recent catastrophic crash events and disturbing trends, there is an alarming amount of misinformation and confusion regarding cell phone and texting use while behind the wheel of a vehicle," VTTI Director Tom Dingus said in a statement July 27. "The findings from our research at VTTI can help begin to clear up these misconceptions, as they are based on real-world driving data. We conduct transportation safety research in an effort to equip the public with information that can save lives."

The VTTI study used sophisticated cameras and instrumentation in participants' personal vehicles. Eye-glance analyses were conducted to assess where drivers were looking while involved in a safety-critical event and performing cell phone tasks. The tasks that draw the driver's eyes away from the forward roadway were those with the highest risk.

The study also refutes a commonly held belief that a headset cell phone is not substantially safer than using a hand-held phone because the primary risk is associated with both tasks is answering, dialing and other tasks that require drivers to take their eyes off the road. The report claims voice-activated systems are less risky if they are designed well enough that the driver does not have to take his or her eyes off the road often or for long periods.

The report follows revelations that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration withheld information for five years that shows drivers using hands-free headsets are just as likely to be involved in traffic accidents as drivers using handheld devices. The Center for Auto Safety obtained the NHTSA records after filing a 2008 Freedom of Information Act request. The NHTSA refused to provide the results of its studies, but the Center for Auto Safety, represented by Public Citizen, ultimately prevailed in the legal battle.

While corroborating the NHTSA studies, the VTTI findings disagree with the Center for Auto Safety's position that "all cell phone use is as hazardous as drinking and driving."

"Recent comparisons made in the literature greatly exaggerate the cell phone risk relative to the very serious effects of alcohol use, which increases the risk of a fatal crash approximately seven times that of sober driving," stated the VTTI report. "Using simple fatal crash and phone use statistics, if talking on cell phones [were] as risky as driving while drunk, the number of fatal crashes would have increased roughly 50 percent in the last decade instead of remaining largely unchanged."


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