Just how dangerous is texting while driving? It’s 23 times as dangerous as driving without doing it.
Text messaging behind the wheel increases the risk of a car accident 23 times, according to a recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. By comparison, a driver blood-alcohol level (BAC) between 0.05 and 0.09 only increases the risk of an accident 11 times, relative to sober driving. (FYI: a 0.10-0.14 BAC increases the risk 48 times, and a 0.15+ BAC increases it about 380 times.)
The Virginia Tech study tracked drivers over an 18-month period using video cameras installed in trucks’ cabs. When drivers got into crashes due to texting, the study authors found they had spent an average of 5 seconds looking at their phones instead of following the road. This is not the first study to have investigated the association between texting and driving. A simulation study done at the University of Utah showed that college students using a sophisticated driving simulator were 8 times more likely to get into an accident if they were texting. Those students also spent about 5 seconds looking at their phones instead of the road.
To give you an idea of the dangers of ignoring the road for a full 5 seconds, consider that a car traveling at a steady 70 mph will cover 513 feet in that time. That’s nearly 2 football fields. Imagine driving that distance—almost a tenth of a mile—without looking at the road. The consequences can be catastrophic. Last month, a graphic Welsh public service announcement received heavy news coverage for dramatizing just such consequences.
So why is texting while driving still allowed in most states? Until recently, its sheer popularity seemed to make lawmakers reluctant to tackle the issue. A study done by AAA found that 1 in 4.76 drivers had sent a text message while driving at least once in the previous month, even though almost every respondent—1 in 1.02, or 98%—agreed that drivers text messaging or emailing was a very serious safety threat. And the New York Times reported this summer that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) withheld documents warning of the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel so as not to anger members of Congress, who had told the agency to collect data but not to lobby in any way.
In the past few months, though, state legislation prohibiting texting while driving has begun to gather momentum. As of this writing, 19 states and the District of Columbia specifically ban text messaging behind the wheel, and 6 of those states (plus DC) ban all handheld phone use while driving. Compared to last year, when only 2 states banned texting while driving, this is a marked increase. And on Sept. 30, President Obama signed an executive order forbidding federal employees from texting while driving.
Legislation aside, other solutions have been proposed. Software programs have been developed—notably DriveAssist, Key2SafeDriving, and ZoomSafer—that deactivate a phone while driving, or use its GPS system (assuming it has one) to prevent drivers from receiving text messages or calls while moving beyond a certain speed. Public service announcements, as noted, are also being created with an eye to increasing awareness of the dangers of texting and driving.
But distracted driving is a complex problem. The odds are already 1 in 19.53 that a licensed driver will be involved in a traffic crash in a year—and then, the number of distractions out there is huge: smoking while driving, OnStar use while driving, drowsy driving, drunk driving, makeup application while driving, laptop use while driving (to which police, whose vehicles carry laptops or mobile data terminals, are also susceptible), and reading while driving, to name a few.
Yet, while progress may be slow, it’s still progress. In 1900, vehicle accidents accounted for the deaths of one in every 17,000 New Yorkers, whereas today only about one in 30,000 New Yorkers is killed by moving vehicles.
Why the disparity? According to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their recently released SuperFreakonomics, the answer is simple: a century ago, vehicles were horse-drawn. Because a vehicle drawn by horse is difficult to maneuver and stop, and because horses are distractible—in traffic use, they may kick, bite, or trample—horse-drawn vehicle accidents in New York were twice as deadly then as car accidents are now.
Distracted driving today, while widespread and dangerous, is fortunately missing that variable. At least one’s vehicle isn’t distractible anymore.