July 17, 2018
It Can Wait: Don’t Text While Driving

It Can Wait: Don’t Text While Driving

by John Swartzberg, M.D.

It may sound crazy (and it is), but lots of people text while driving. Even if you don’t, you’ve probably seen other drivers doing it. In 2006, Reggie Shaw, a 19-year-old living in rural Utah, texted while driving. As a result, two rocket scientists were killed in a flash as his car crossed the yellow line while he was driving to work on a mountain road.

Driver distrac­tion, which accounts for at least 10 percent of all fatal motor vehicle crashes, killed an estimated 3,200 people in the U.S. and injured another 430,000 in 2014 alone. Though it’s unclear how many of such accidents result from texting, in particular, preliminary research sug­gests that it increases crash risk by at least four-fold.

Reggie’s plight—and the lives he irrevocably affected, including his own—is recounted in A Deadly Wandering, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel. Interweaving the story of the deadly crash with chapters on the neuroscience behind texting and other “addictive” technologies, the book should be mandatory in high school driver education courses but read by drivers of all ages. (Tex­ting is not just a teen obsession.)

You may think you are able to text without it impairing your ability to drive—that you can multitask. After all, you’ve probably never had an accident yourself while multitasking. Perhaps you think Reggie was different from you—that he must have been especially careless or that he lacked the skills that a more experienced driver would have had.

But as A Deadly Wandering explains, when we are “connected” to our devices, we are disconnected from the world—and it is impossible for our brains to efficiently switch back and forth, no matter how much we believe we can. Studies using driving simulators and special brain imaging tests have proven this beyond a doubt. “To ignore this science is to engage in self-deception, to tell ourselves a lie,” Richtel warns.

I’m not a big texter myself and so have never texted while driving. But I do often talk on my speakerphone—and I think I’m fairly typical. After reading this book, I won’t anymore. That’s because it’s not just texting while driving that is dangerous. All forms of cellphone use are distracting. Talking on a cellphone—even a hands-free one—is differ­ent from talking to a passenger because the person on the other end of the line cannot provide feedback (about road hazards, for instance) or monitor the conversation according to circumstances, as can some­one seated next to you. The technology takes your mind off the task at hand.

Texting is even more hazardous because it also takes your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road. A study in Traffic Injury Prevention in 2013 suggested that texting while driving is as risky as driving drunk.

Too often, the buzz, flash, or ring of an incoming text or call is impos­sible to ignore. But driving requires our complete focus. If you can’t resist, turn off your phone—or at least the notification functions— when you get in the car. If you urgently need to text or engage in a phone conversation, wait until you have stopped. Technologies are being developed that can disable the ability to text or use other cell­phone functions while driving, or can prevent the car from moving unless the phone is in a docking station. There are also apps that block texting while driving.

Still not convinced of the danger? Don’t take my word—listen to Reggie himself at Zero Fatalities: Reggie Shaw's Story and Texting While Driving Story - Reggie Shaw. To test your own (in)ability to multitask, check out these online video simulators.

Here are some other disturbing stats:

  • The average 5-second text, while traveling 55 miles per hour, takes your eyes off the road for the length of time it takes to travel a distance equal to more than a football field, according to a 2009 government report.
  • According to results from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey, at any given moment of daylight hours across the U.S., about 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating other electronic devices.
  • In a survey from Erie Insurance in 2015, one-third of drivers confessed that they text while driving (even more are likely to do it but not admit it).
  • A 2014 analysis of 28 studies, inAccident Analysis and Preventionfound that texting slowed reaction times, increased lane deviations, and increased the amount of time drivers looked away from the road.
  • The mental impairment from voice-activated systems in motor vehicles—which allow drivers to do everything from make calls to send emails, tweets, and tests—can last up to 27 seconds after you’re done speaking, according to research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. That is, the distraction doesn’t end with the task itself but continues for a significant amount of time afterwards.