Drivers who take their eyes off the road to send a text message or dial a phone number significantly raise their chances of causing a crash, according to a new study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The study, which compiled real-world data, delivered some results that differ from those of earlier studies, especially with respect to talking and driving.
Virginia Tech tracked 42 brand-new drivers aged 16 or 17 alongside 109 adults with varying experience behind the wheel. It installed video cameras, GPS systems, lane trackers, and other sensors to gauge speed and acceleration in the cars used by the test subjects.
New drivers present the greatest risk. Virginia Tech reports a sevenfold increase in the chance of a crash or near-miss when 16- or 17-year-old drivers reached for their phone or dialed a number. Sending and receiving text messages boosted the risk of a crash or near-miss fourfold among teens. Phones weren't the only items in the car that provided a distraction. Roadside objects and food also distracted young drivers. Older drivers were also more apt to cause an accident if dialing a phone number.
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The study also looked at what happens when drivers talk on the phone when behind the wheel, though there is a glaring weakness in the study: it didn't account for the differences between speaking directly into a cellphone and using a hands-free device. That said, it found that simply talking on the phone was not as dangerous as earlier studies suggest. The results have caused some to question the legitimacy of the testing.
University of Utah scientist David Strayer, who has performed his own research on the dangers of cellphone use behind the wheel, told the Associated Press the idea that talking on a phone while driving poses no risk is "completely at odds with what we found." Strayer also pointed out weaknesses with how the study gauged distractions. For example, the video cameras may show drivers' wandering eyes, but they don't account for cognitive distraction. "You don't swerve so much when you're talking on a cellphone; you just might run through a red light," Strayer pointed out.
It's worth noting, however, that in order to hold a phone conversation when driving, a driver must first either dial a number or locate and reach for the phone -- activities that divert a driver's attention from the road. "We all agree that things like taking your eyes off the road are dangerous," said Strayer -- no matter the reason.
The study was paid for by the National Institutes of Health and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the results published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.
Plenty of states have bans against talking and/or texting when behind the wheel. So far, 12 have entirely banned the use of cellphones while driving, and 41 have banned text messaging.
Businesses with mobile employees must enact and enforce their own policies regarding phone use behind the wheel. The liability risks are too great.
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