How dangerous is texting while driving? To find out, American researchers compared the driving behaviours of 59 volunteers as they drove on a highway.
The volunteers had to drive over a section of highway four times, each time under different conditions. In one case, they had to drive under normal conditions, i.e. with no distractions. Other times they drove while being distracted either with mentally challenging questions, or with emotionally charged questions. Another time, they were asked to drive while receiving and sending text messages. The four drives were conducted in random order.
In each of the purposely “distracted” drives, the participants became jittery. However, it was only while texting that drivers veered out of their lane or drove unsafely. Surprisingly, the volunteers drove even straighter in the two drives where they had to answer challenging or emotionally charged questions.
According to the researchers, the brain is always trying to compensate for distractions. The study showed that whenever participants were distracted by questions or texting, this resulted in jittery handling of the steering wheel. However, the brain was found to offset this agitation when the drivers were able to keep their eyes on the road, such as when they were asked questions. The researchers believe this type of compensation relies on eye-hand coordination.
On the other hand, texting requires looking at the telephone screen, which breaks the eye-hand coordination loop. As a result, the brain is unable to compensate for distractions and driving becomes erratic.
Texting causes thousands of car accidents each year, and that number is constantly increasing. The research team is hoping that their study will help us better understand the risks involved, in order to find solutions to this dangerous habit.