On the hazards of distracted driving

Given the emphasis placed upon drunk driving by law enforcement and non-profit groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), it’s easy to overlook the dangers of distracted driving.

Car and Driver performed a real-life experiment in impaired driving, with the intention of comparing the effects of alcohol and texting on driver reaction time. They brought a Honda Pilot and two staffers-cum-lab rats to a taxiway they had rented at a municipal airport. Their experimental design was simple. Red lights mounted at eye level from the windshield were intended to represent the brake lights of a lead car.

Two guinea pigs—one 22 years of age, the other 37—were given cell phones with full “qwerty” keyboards, and a steady stream of quotes from the movie Caddyshack to read and copy as they drove. While texting and driving, each driver would respond to five separate flashes of the “brake” light. The experiment was repeated twice, once at 35 mph and again at 70 mph.

The second phase of the test required the two subjects to consume enough alcohol to blow a .08 on a breathalyzer. (Just a reminder: the test was conducted on a closed course, under controlled conditions. Do Not Try This At Home.) The test was repeated, with each subject responding to five brake signals at two different speeds.

The results were eye-opening. While texting at 35 mph, the reaction times demonstrated by the younger test subject were slowed by up to .1 seconds. It may not sound like much, but consider: his baseline reaction time (in which neither texting nor alcohol were involved) was .45 seconds. This means that, while texting, the time it took him to react to brake lights directly ahead increased by almost 25%.

The results for the 37-year-old driver were even more dramatic. At 35 mph, his baseline response time clocked in at .57 seconds. While texting, he averaged a response time of 1.36 seconds. In other words, it took him twice as long to react to brake lights while texting.

It may come as a surprise that each driver’s reaction times while impaired by alcohol were significantly better. However, Car and Driver is quick to point out that this should in no way be taken as a vindication of drunk driving, noting that one of the subjects had to be told twice which lane to drive in; in a real-world situation, such mistakes result in head-on collisions.

It ought to be repeated that the Car and Driver study was not a formal research study. However, it bears out the conclusion advanced by academic research, that driving while distracted can be extremely dangerous—perhaps, in some cases, just as driving while impaired.

The government is exploring the possibility of stricter enforcement, as demonstrated by the “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other” pilot program in Syracuse, NY and Hartford, CT. The program combined waves of strict enforcement with a series of public service announcements aimed at curbing distracted driving.

Over the course of the program, Syracuse law enforcement handed out 9,587 tickets for driving while using a cell phone. During the same period, Hartford police issued 9,658 citations. As a result of the program, the incidence of driving while using a cell phone decreased by one third in Syracuse. The decline was even steeper in Hartford, indicating that the program was indeed effective. However, it remains to be seen whether such experiments will result in permanent legislation.