Of all the distractions ensnaring drivers, texting is the one that has raised the greatest ire among safety researchers, industry critics, auto companies and federal and state regulators. Texting is taking lives, and that's provoking national outrage and promulgating new laws and safety campaigns.
Even when texting doesn't kill, it can permanently change and disrupt lives, as shown in this video from Liz Marks and her mother, Betty.
Everyone can empathize with the Marks family. But there are all kinds of distractions in cars, from music menus to onscreen maps. All have the potential to distract, heading you into a guardrail or through a stop sign. Is texting really that much more dangerous? And if so, why?
Texting: A "Permanent Part" of Modern Life
Safety regulators and researchers say texting while driving is indeed more of a concern than other in-car distractions. One facet of the concern is that texting is widespread, particularly among young drivers who lack experience behind the wheel. Texting is also more distracting than many other driver activities.
According to CTIA, The Wireless Association, U.S. consumers sent 153 billion text messages per month in 2013, many of them from behind the wheel of a car. About one-eighth of all drivers reported texting while driving, according to a study on driver distraction conducted by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).
"These devices are a permanent part of people's daily lives," said Alan Hall, a spokesman for the Ford Motor Company.
In a survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the majority of drivers who admitted to texting were between 18 and 29. That means the biggest offenders were also less experienced drivers.
Mike Jackson, the chairman and CEO of AutoNation, America's largest auto retailer, says his company's dealerships see evidence of the problem daily.
"We take these crashes into our dealerships every day — cars that are rear-ended by young people texting," Jackson said.
While motorists can lessen the odds of encountering a drunk driver by staying off the roads at night, texting drivers can be hard to dodge, Jackson said. "Texting is 24/7 with young drivers," he said. "I have a feeling when the studies come in, it is going to be the greatest driver distraction ever."
A Distraction Triple-Header
Texting while driving has a particular power to distract because it's an activity that has visual, manual and cognitive components. It requires drivers to look at something other than the road, do something other than handle the wheel and think about something other than driving the car. In other words, texting involves three categories that involve major driver distraction.
Texting takes a driver's eyes are off the road for 4-5 seconds at a time, often with multiple occurrences to read and send messages back and forth, said Thomas A. Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and an expert in driver-distraction research.
"You have 3 seconds to respond as a driver in an emergency," he said. "When you text, your eyes are off the road by 10 times that."
Dingus said simulator studies exaggerate the risks of conversations on a cell phone while driving, but that's not the case with texting. "Cell phone use has grown exponentially and the crash rate has gone down," he said. "But the concerns about texting are not overblown. Texting is far more dangerous than talking on the phone."
Distraction involves more than the act of pressing keys on a cell phone, said Bryan Reimer, associate director of the New England University Transportation Center and a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab. The content of the text can also increase a driver's risk.
A short non-emotional text message or conversation that occurs in any medium is likely to be far less distracting than a highly emotional engagement, he said.
"Whether it is communications through Facebook, text messaging, Twitter or a cellular phone call, the content of the conversation cannot be ignored," Reimer said. "Our research, as well as that of others, suggests that cognitive demands associated with conversation, thought and perhaps emotion also increase risk."
In lab simulations and field research, Reimer found that physiological changes such as an increase in heart rate and slight changes in the skin's ability to conduct electricity occur with increased workload, arousal or stress. Researchers noted these when drivers were given increasingly demanding cognitive tasks while driving.
Reimer said that combining physiological data with more traditional measures of driver behavior might help provide a clearer picture of the invisible activities — like thinking about a business deal or a relationship — that underlie distraction.
Dingus believes that texting's paramount danger is that it's a visual distraction. "You can't drive without looking at the road regardless of how high or low the cognitive demand is," he said.
Regulators Crack Down
Such research shows that texting is serious trouble for the driving public, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 2012, 3,328 people died in distraction-related crashes, according to NHTSA. That was a slight decrease from the 3,360 people who died in 2011. An estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2012, however. That is a 9 percent increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011.
NHTSA is continuing its multiyear program of developing voluntary guidelines to "promote safety by discouraging the introduction of excessively distracting devices in vehicles." It also tries to raise awareness by supporting states' programs and through campaigns aimed at young drivers, such as its "If You're Texting, You're Not Driving" campaign and videos:
The National Transportation Safety Board has identified portable electronic devices as a contributing factor in 11 accident investigations that resulted in 50 people being killed and 259 injured. In 2011, the board called for a nationwide ban on driver use of such devices while operating a motor vehicle. Distraction once again has made the agency's "Most Wanted List" of areas for transportation safety improvements.
State governments are reacting by making texting while driving illegal. At this writing, the majority of U.S. states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have enacted texting bans for all drivers.
Automakers Promote a Tech Solution
Automakers are taking a two-pronged approach to the problem of texting. One is an effort to make communication safer by converting text messages that a driver would read and send to voice-to-text messaging. One example of such a feature is available in Ford's Sync system. Sync lets drivers reply to texts with a voice call, or they can text back a generic response with a couple pushes of a button.
GM vehicles give drivers the ability to use voice commands to dictate texts and messages for use on Twitter and Facebook. Chevrolet was the first vehicle brand in the industry to produce vehicles with Siri Eyes Free technology, which allows Siri voice commands on a connected iPhone to be activated by pressing a button on the steering wheel, said Stuart Fowle, General Motors Connected Vehicle spokesman. It launched on the Spark and Sonic models and is now available on most Buick, Cadillac, Chevy and GMC vehicles.
Automakers explicitly warn customers that it's dangerous to take their hands off the wheel to tap out messages. Chevrolet, for example, promotes the ease of Siri Eyes Free, and adds, "That way, driving your Chevrolet vehicle can be your main focus. Just be sure to text and drive only with the voice system, and never text on your handheld while driving."
Ford supports proposed legislation to ban handheld texting behind the wheel, using the slogan, "Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road." The automaker is expanding its national teenage driver education program, Driving Skills for Life, which includes a segment on the dangers of texting while driving.
BMW has its "DON'T TXT & DRIVE" campaign that's been distributed through TV, print, online and dealership channels. It's also a part of its teen driving schools.
GM doesn't have an explicit public anti-texting campaign, said Scott Geisler, engineering group manager of Active Safety Driver Performance and Benefit Analysis for GM.
"Frankly, texting with a handset is so far beyond what's reasonable according to our industry guidelines, we have not done anything for the public," he said. "We did revise our employee guidelines to include a mandate not to text when they are on GM business or in a GM car because the data is clear that it is so dangerous."
GM's research into safer modes of communication for drivers is ongoing, Geisler said. "We are looking at this all the time: how we can manage the risk of distractions through applications to connectivity."
Voice Commands: Not a Panacea?
As evidenced by the fact that carmakers are including voice commands as a substitute for dangerous texting, there's a belief that voice systems are safer, Reimer said. But research on cognitive demands shows that this may not be the case, he said.
"There's still the open question as to whether technology integration allows for safer communication or encourages people to communicate more because it's easier," Reimer said. "Any task, easy or complex, that is beyond the activity of driving can be considered as a distraction."
NHTSA also states that while texting is dangerous, hands-free devices are not a panacea. "The available research indicates that cell phone use while driving, whether it is a hands-free or handheld device, degrades a driver's performance," a NHTSA FAQ notes.
"The driver is more likely to miss key visual and audio cues needed to avoid a crash," according to NHTSA. "Handheld devices may be slightly worse, but hands-free devices are not risk-free."
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