Body’s natural ‘sixth sense’ fails when drivers text, study claims

A new study from Texas says that the body's sixth sense breaks down when motorists attempt to text and drive simultaneously.

When you hear the term "distracted driving," it's typically associated with handheld phone use, specifically texting at the wheel. In reality, though, distractions can take on many forms, be it daydreaming, contemplating your job performance, or deciding what to have for dinner.

As the old saying goes, people may be able to walk – or, in this case, drive – and chew gum at the same time. But one thing they can't do without significantly risking their physical well-being is text. A newly released study explains why.

How the study worked

Conducted by researchers from the University of Houston and Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the analysis involved 59 volunteers who were instructed to drive the same stretch of road four times, but doing something different each time. For instance, in the first go-around, they were told to put 100% of their attention on driving. In the second, participants were asked to think about probing emotional questions or issues that they were dealing with. They were also instructed to text and drive simultaneously, doing so in a way that didn't risk them getting into an accident.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the participants' driving performance was affected when their minds were preoccupied. The study's authors described their handling of the wheel as "jittery." However, only in the texting scenario was the handling so bad as to legitimately increase the risk of an accident due to an errant lane change, for example. In the other attempts, motorists actually maintained a straighter path compared to when their sole focus was on driving.

Ioannis Pavlidis UH professor of science, explained that the most probable reason why this is the case goes back to the human brain's physical makeup, specifically the brain's anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC.

"ACC is known to automatically intervene as an error corrector when there is conflict," Pavlidis explained in a press release. "In this case, the conflict comes from the cognitive, emotional and sensorimotor, or texting, stressors. This raises the levels of physiological stress, funneling 'fight or flight' energy to the driver's arms, resulting in jittery handling of the steering wheel."

He added that the brain has a natural ability to compensate for emotional stressors, or a "sixth sense," of sorts. But this ultrasensory capability fails with respect to texting.

"What makes texting so dangerous is that it wreaks havoc into this sixth sense," Pavlidis went on to say. "Self-driving cars may bypass this and other problems, but the moral of the story is that humans have their own auto systems that work wonders, until they break."

The study, titled "Dissecting Driver Behaviors Under Cognitive, Emotional Sensorimotor and Mixed Stressors," has since been published in the journal Scientific Reports, which is available online.

46 states bar motorists from texting and driving

Safety experts believe that a nationwide texting ban is all but certain. That hasn't come to pass just yet. As of July 2016, 46 states prohibit drivers from texting. Of these, 41 have primary laws on the books, meaning traffic enforcement officers can pull over motorists for engaging in the banned activity. In states where texting is a secondary offense, drivers have to be pulled over for another reason to be cited, such as speeding or running a red light. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 90% of highway accidents are behavior related.

Despite the fact that 92% of the U.S. forbids motorists from texting at the wheel, the overwhelming majority of Americans say it remains a significant concern. Over 95% described it as the biggest issue that's preventing the roads from being safer than they are currently, according to a survey done by vehicle valuation firm Kelley Blue Book.