Dangerous living: The danger of unprotected text while driving

Because we have built our automobiles to resemble living rooms (comfy seats, radios, AC, cupholders, etc.) rather than vehicles, it is not surprising that people want to bring their phones and TVs along for the ride as well. The idea that we could make a trip of any length without being pacified by songs, movies or texting seems unthinkable to most children, as well as many adults.

But think it over: How in the world do people expect to drive competently when they are trying to send the latest text message about what they’re going to be doing in the next five minutes? Yes, cars are easier to manipulate these days then in the past, but traffic is still traffic and goodness knows it would be nice to give some attention for the sake of those around you.

With that in mind, Car and Driver has done a study as to just how texting affects a driver’s ability to react. The test was pretty straightforward: Two subjects were tested in their response to a mounted red light (meant to simulate a brake light in a lead car). They were tested driving on a straight route with no other traffic. Their results were tested based on no impairments, when legally intoxicated, while reading texts and while sending texts. The results were clear:

The results, though not surprising, were eye-opening. Intern Brown’s baseline reaction time at 35 mph of 0.45 second worsened to 0.57 while reading a text, improved to 0.52 while writing a text, and returned almost to the baseline while impaired by alcohol, at 0.46. At 70 mph, his baseline reaction was 0.39 second, while the reading (0.50), texting (0.48), and drinking (0.50) numbers were similar. But the averages don’t tell the whole story. Looking at Jordan’s slowest reaction time at 35 mph, he traveled an extra 21 feet (more than a car length) before hitting the brakes while reading and went 16 feet longer while texting. At 70 mph, a vehicle travels 103 feet every second, and Brown’s worst reaction time while reading at that speed put him about 30 feet (31 while typing) farther down the road versus 15 feet while drunk.

Alterman fared much, much worse. While reading a text and driving at 35 mph, his average baseline reaction time of 0.57 second nearly tripled, to 1.44 seconds. While texting, his response time was 1.36 seconds. These figures correspond to an extra 45 and 41 feet, respectively, before hitting the brakes. His reaction time after drinking averaged 0.64 second and, by comparison, added only seven feet. The results at 70 mph were similar: Alterman’s response time while reading a text was 0.35 second longer than his base performance of 0.56 second, and writing a text added 0.68 second to his reaction time. But his intoxicated number increased only 0.04 second over the base score, to a total of 0.60 second.

The upshot? We all know that driving while drunk is terrible. But driving while texting is way worse. How much? Consider the time it takes to break at 70 mph:

  • Unimpaired: .54 seconds to brake
  • Legally drunk: add 4 feet
  • Reading e-mail: add 36 feet
  • Sending a text: add 70 feet

I haven’t heard about any group called Mothers Against Texting Drivers yet, but the more we hear about accidents and deaths caused by texting, inattentive drivers, the likelier it may be.

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