It isn't exactly breaking news that texting while driving is a bad idea. But a study released Monday night reveals just how dangerous it really can be.
After examining the behavior of truck drivers covering more than 6 million miles of road, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded that people who send text messages while driving are 23 times more likely to be in a crash (or what they call a near-crash event) than nondistracted drivers.
To conduct the study, researchers mounted cameras inside drivers' vehicles. They studied where drivers' eyes were looking as they did various things, such as texting, dialing a cell phone, talking on a phone, and reaching for an object. Not surprisingly, the numbers (PDF) showed that the tasks that took people's eyes off the road caused the greatest amount of danger.
In crashes or near-crashes, texting took a driver's focus away from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds--enough time, the report point out, to travel the length of a football field at 55 mph.
By contrast, talking on a cell phone, which allows drivers to keep their eyes on the road, represented an increased risk of only 1.3 times that of a nondistracted driver.
The study's authors called into question past research that indicated driving while talking on a cell phone is as dangerous as driving drunk. While those results may have been found in lab tests and driving simulations, they say, the same was not true in real-world situations. They also noted that, contrary to popular belief, talking on a cell phone with a wireless headset is not substantially safer than talking on a regular handset. This is because the most significant factor as far as safety is concerned is to keep one's eyes on the road, the report said.
The institute says any task that takes a driver's eyes off the road should be avoided and suggests that all cell phone activity should be banned for newly licensed teenagers because they're more prone to using their phones.
(Note: For more details, The New York Times has a breakdown of the study's methodology.)