Driver's Seat
Jan/Feb 2008 Issue
Texting and driving can be a dangerous combination, AAA cautions teen motorists

Cell phones have long been linked to distracted driving and crashes, but now it’s not only talking on those phones that is leading to fatal wrecks but texting on them as well.

Newspapers and the nightly television news increasingly have shown reports of accidents that were likely caused by text messaging in recent years, including a highly publicized accident in New York that claimed the life of five high school cheerleaders last summer. And with the popularity of text messaging, especially among teens, the crash reports are sure to continue.

Indeed, according to a survey by AAA and Seventeen magazine, an alarmingly high number of teen drivers–46 percent–admitted that they text message while they’re driving. Moreover, 51 percent of teens talk on cell phones while they drive, the survey of more than 1,000 16- and 17-year-old drivers found.

Text messaging may be one of the most dangerous distractions for any driver, especially teens who have the least experience behind the wheel. Driving is a complex task, requiring a motorist’s full attention with no room for distractions. Text messaging is not only visually but mentally distracting.

“Nearly 80 percent of collisions involve some form of inattention, and your risk of being in a crash increases by 400 percent or more when you use a cell phone,” said Mike Right of AAA’s Traffic Safety division. “That’s because distractions like text messaging can affect every element of safe driving.”

When you drive, you’re actually performing three functions: observing what’s going on around you; making good decisions; and taking the appropriate action. Text messaging can interfere with each step. If your attention is focused on texting, you could easily miss an important change in what’s going on around you, such as a car pulling out in front of you or a signal light changing from green to yellow.

Additionally, if you are text- ing while driving, your attention is divided between the two. When your attention is divided, your decision making slows down, putting you at risk. If you’re too busy texting, you could fail to react appropriately, increasing your chances of experiencing a crash.

“Taking your eyes off the road for just a second can lead to a deadly accident, for you and others on the road,” Right said. “Sending a text message takes a lot longer than a second.”

Because of the risks associated with texting behind the wheel, at least two states have taken steps to implement a ban on the practice, including New Jersey and Washington.

Parents should discuss teen car crashes and how to prevent them with their young drivers, AAA advises. Conversations with teens can begin with the importance of wearing a seat belt and move into the hazards of driving at night, while on a cell phone or with teen passengers, which is another major distraction for novice drivers. Entering into a parent-teen driving agreement can be a helpful way to start the dialogue.

For details on parent-teen driving agreements or on teen driver safety, log on to

“Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens claiming more than 6,000 15- to 20-year-olds each year,” Right said. “Inexperience behind the wheel coupled with poor decision-making ability make it even more important for teens to stay focused when driving. Their attention should not be divided among phones, friends and the road.”

Talking translates into tragedy for cell users

While texting on a cell phone can be extremely distracting for drivers because it draws their attention away from the road, just talking on a cell–even equipped with a hands-free device–can lead to crashes.

At any given daylight moment, approximately 974,000 vehicles on the road are being driven by someone on a hand-held phone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Tragically, cell phone use contributes to 2,600 vehicle fatalities and 300,000 collisions each year.

The problem is that cell phone use, even when the driver is using a headset rather than a hand-held device, poses a serious cognitive distraction and degrades driver performance. Taking a driver’s mind off the road can cause the driver to miss key visual and audio clues needed to avoid a crash.

Studies have shown that nearly 80 percent of collisions involve some form of driver inattention, including cell phone use. What’s more, the risk of crashes increases 400 percent when talking on a cell phone while driving.

One telling study was performed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute using driving simulators. Among the findings were that young drivers’ response times to brake lights ahead when talking on a cell phone were as slow as those of elderly drivers. Also, drivers of all ages were 9 percent slower in hitting their brakes due to cell phone use.

AAA advises motorists to turn their cell phones off before they drive. If you have to call or text, pull off the road safely and stop before making your call.

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