Knowing the dangers of texting and driving could save a life

Study uncovers why devices are uniquely distracting for drivers

The distracted driving statistics are alarming. An estimated 3,477 motorists were killed in automobile accidents in 2015 where multitasking was involved, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Between 500,000 and 750,000 motorists use their electronic devices at any given moment while they’re behind the wheel, and state and local officials have cracked down on this safety hazard as a result. Just about every state currently has legislation in place aimed at reducing distractions, particularly the mobile device variety.

But what is it about smartphones, specifically, that makes them so uniquely dangerous while driving? Researchers at the University of Iowa believe they have the answer.

Scientists chalk it up to a phenomenon called “attentional disengagement.” Earlier this year, UI researchers used computerized experiments to track participants’ eye movements when individuals were posed various true-or-false questions. When they compared the eye movements to other subjects, who weren’t asked questions or required to respond, the first group took twice as long to move their eyes to a different position.

Shaun Vecera, who led the research and is a professor in UI’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, noted that what this suggests is conversations tend to redirect individuals’ situational awareness, prompting the brain to focus on a variety of stimuli simultaneously.

“The reason you should be cautious – when talking on the phone while driving – is it slows your attention down,” Vecera explained. “We’re just not aware of it because it happens so fast.

How long does it take to read the typical text?

Something as simple as reading a text message can take more time than it seems. For instance, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when traveling at 55 miles per hour, motorists drive the length of a football field – 100 yards – by the time they finish reading the average text.

“Motorists travel the length of a football field to read the average text.”

But in terms of eye movements the UI study tracked, the difference is approximately 40 milliseconds. Vecera noted that while this may not seem all that significant, the delay is even longer with each subsequent distraction.

“It’s a snowball effect,” Vecera warned. “That’s what contributes to the problem, because eventually you’re oblivious to a lot that’s around you.”

States refining distracted driving rules

It’s because of studies like these that state lawmakers have stiffened distracting driving penalties. Texas recently became the 47th state to ban all motorists from texting behind the wheel. Prior to the governor’s signature, distracted driving laws were decided by local municipalities. Utilizing a handheld phone for talking purposes is also prohibited in school zones within the Lone Star State. In Washington, the first state to outlaw texting while driving, lawmakers recently passed a bill that forbids motorists from using handheld devices for any reason, be it talking or surfing the internet. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, handheld devices are prohibited from drivers’ use in 14 states. The same rule applies in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

“Distracted driving may be more common than the numbers suggest.”

While no one is immune to delayed reaction times prompted by phone conversations, Vecera noted that older adults tend to pivot from one task to the next more slowly than others. Citing a similar study he did with colleagues six years ago, Vecera reported that reaction times were particularly slow for vision-impaired older adults.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of distracted driving-related crashes is that they may be more common than the numbers suggest. According to the National Safety Council, 26 states don’t have codes law enforcement can use to document precisely how many individuals they catch breaking distracted driving laws.

By texting or talking on the phone, drivers put themselves and others at risk for an accident. Elephant Auto Insurance joins the law enforcement and concerned driver communities in urging motorists to keep their focus on the roads.

This article is intended for informational purposes only. It does not replace or modify the information contained in your insurance policy.