Texting while driving is a serious contributor to car accidents, but a new study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute reveals why trivial, distracting activities like texting are particularly dangerous.
Texting while driving has already had a major impact on the number of car accidents each year, with many being attributed to drivers focusing more on their smartphones than on the road. Unfortunately, the problem only appears to be getting worse.
Several studies have been conducted recently that show that many drivers who text while driving start by only using their phones at traffic lights, while stopped. Over time, the tendency is to slowly start texting while in motion. Once drivers realize they can get away with looking at their phones while behind the wheel, they start to take more liberties with their devices. While some start by texting only while stopped at a red light, before long they’re texting while driving at much higher speeds.
Why is texting while driving particularly dangerous?
Researchers at Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the University of Houston recently conducted a study1 to investigate whether texting while driving is worse than other forms of distracted driving.
Drivers who participated in the study drove a simulation four times, with a different scenario each time: (a) with no distractions, (b) while answering challenging questions, (c) while discussing emotionally charged topics and (d) while preoccupied with trivial text messages.
The first scenario, with no distractions, yielded expected results: few drivers made mistakes. Surprisingly, drivers in the second and third scenario actually drove better than those with no distractions. The researchers concluded that the reason for this is that the added stress actually resulted in a physiological response that made the drivers more aware and responsive to their surroundings.
However, texting while driving, researchers concluded, actually does something to distract the part of the brain that helps maintain alertness and keep us safe on the road. The fourth simulation, the one in which drivers were instructed to read and reply to trivial texts while driving, showed the worst deviations from the given path. Drivers showed more lane deviations and other habits of unsafe drivers than they did while dealing with challenging or emotionally charged questions. According to the researchers, “[A]bsent-minded and emotionally charged distracted drivers were able to stay on course and in their lanes, while texting drivers could not.”1
The end result of the study is that while texting while driving may at first seem harmful, it’s actually preventing one of the body’s natural defense systems from kicking in. Without this type of “sixth sense” to help drivers keep alert behind the wheel, the likelihood of having an accident greatly increases.