Texting and Driving: A Serious Killer

texting while driving

Story at-a-glance -

  • Driver-related factors such as distraction, error, impairment and fatigue are present in nearly 90 percent of crashes
  • Dialing a phone was the most dangerous distraction and increased the risk of a crash by 12-fold
  • Hands-free cell phone use is just as dangerous while driving as a hand-held device; the danger is due to your brain, which cannot effectively multitask

By Dr. Mercola

What happens when you use onboard video cameras and sensors monitoring speed, acceleration and GPS location to gather information from more than 3,500 drivers over a three-year period?

You get an intimate snapshot of the seconds leading up to a crash, including revelations about the risk factors that caused it.

This was the model used by a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which revealed that many "secondary tasks" related to the use of hand-held electronic devices (i.e. cell phones) are of "detriment to driver safety."1

Driver-Related Factors Implicated in 90 Percent of Crashes

The researchers analyzed data from more than 900 crashes that involved injuries or property damage. They noted a dramatic shift in crash causation in recent years, noting that driver-related factors such as distraction, error, impairment and fatigue are present in nearly 90 percent of crashes.

"The results also definitively show that distraction is detrimental to driver safety, with handheld electronic devices having high use rates and risk," they concluded.2 Specifically, dialing a phone was the most dangerous distraction and increased the risk of a crash by 12-fold.

Reading or writing while driving was also dangerous and increased crash risk by 20 times. Other dangerous activities while driving included:

  • Reaching for an item other than a cell phone (increased crash risk by nine times)
  • Texting (increased risk by six times)
  • Reaching for a cell phone (increased risk by five times)
  • Browsing a phone or reading email (increased risk by three times)

Distracted Drivers Involved in 70 Percent of Crashes

Distraction is a major danger to drivers, and the study revealed, quite disturbingly, that drivers were distracted for varying periods of time during more than half of their trips. This doubled the risk of a crash.

Driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol was still a greater crash risk (increasing the risk by 36 times), but that doesn't minimize the dangers of distracted driving.

Even crying or being visibly angry was enough of a distraction to increase the chances of a crash by 10 times but far more common is distraction due to use of a cell phone.

Even dialing a phone increased crash risk by 12 times, which is incredibly concerning considering teens spend about nine hours daily using media, which includes ample time on their cell phones, presumably some of it while driving despite the significant risks.3

Even on their best day, teens are three times more likely to crash than experienced drivers,4 underscoring the importance of talking to teens about turning their phones off while driving.

Your Thinking (Reflective) Brain Can Only Think About One Thing at a Time

Download Interview Transcript

Dr. Theo Compernolle is a Belgian physician with about three decades' worth of experience in clinical psychiatry, neuropsychiatry and neurology.

His book, "Brain Chains: Discover Your Brain, to Unleash Its Full Potential In a Hyperconnected, Multitasking World," reveals how to distinguish between the reflexive and the reflective (or thinking) brain, and how understanding the inner workings of your brain can dramatically improve your quality of life.

Compernolle is so adamant about the dangers of distracted driving that he dedicates an entire section of his book to the hazards of using cell phones and tablets while driving. Some nations have realized the scale of the problem and have begun banning use of technology in the car.

The reason is simple: It's virtually impossible to drive a car safely while talking or texting on the phone because your reflective brain can only think about one thing at a time. It is a neurological fact: Your reflective brain cannot multitask.

While your reflex brain is taking care of the routine of driving, your reflective brain should be on standby in order to consider and imagine non-routine future events that are out of the reach of your reflex brain.

The ideal option is to turn your phone off while driving to avoid the distraction of pinging message notifications from your email and social media, as well as the temptation to answer and make calls and texts.

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Hands-Free Phone Use Is Just as Dangerous as Holding Your Phone

It's also important to realize that, according to Compernolle, there is no difference between holding the phone in your hand versus using it hands-free.

The reason for this is because the limitation is in your brain, not your hands. Whether you hold your phone or not, your brain still has to multitask when you're using it while driving.

Also, talking on the phone is much more dangerous than having a light conversation with a passenger. For starters, you only have a passenger once in a while and your phone has the potential to claim your attention virtually all the time.

Secondly, because the passenger is there with you, observing the same environment, it makes for a safer environment in your vehicle.

Someone on the other side of the phone line is more distracting, because they're completely unaware of your surroundings and cannot alert you to a potential hazard on the road like a passenger is likely to do — even while having a conversation. The National Safety Council (NSC) echoes this belief:5

"Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not truly multi-task. More than 30 studies show hands-free devices are no safer than handheld as the brain remains distracted by the cell phone conversation. NSC estimates 26% of all crashes involve cell phone use while driving.

 Talking on a cell phone, either hands-free or handheld, is estimated be involved in 21% of crashes — with an additional 5% for texting."

For more details about why it's so dangerous to drive while using a cell phone, see NSC's infographic below.6

The Great Multitasking Lie Infographic Preview

Traffic Deaths Jumped More From 2014 to 2015 Than They Have in 50 Years

Data released by NSC revealed the largest one-year percentage increase in traffic deaths in 50 years. Such deaths increased 8 percent from 2014 to 2015. To put this in perspective, traffic deaths rose less than 0.5 percent from 2013 to 2014 and dropped 3 percent during from 2012 to 2013. According to NSC:7

"The Council estimates 38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads, and 4.4 million were seriously injured, meaning 2015 likely was the deadliest driving year since 2008."

The estimates don't reveal what factors caused the increase, but NSC noted a stronger economy and lower unemployment rates as likely being at the core of the trend. With gas prices an average of 28 percent lower in 2015 than in 2014, driving was more affordable.

Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation found Americans drove 3.5 percent more miles in 2015 compared to 2014, which could account for the increased traffic deaths.8 Past NSC research has also found that alcohol, speed and distracted driving account for the most traffic fatalities overall. The latter, distracted driving, causes 26 percent of motor-vehicle deaths.9

73 Percent of Americans Want More Enforcement of Texting-While-Driving Laws

A public opinion poll conducted by NSC found 73 percent of Americans are in favor of more enforcement of texting laws, with more than half (52 percent) supporting increased insurance costs or a point system that could lead to the loss of a driver's license as penalties.10

There are already many distracted driving laws in place in the U.S. For hand-held cell phone use, all laws in place are primary enforcement laws, which means a police officer may cite your for using a hand-held cell phone while driving without any other traffic offense taking place. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, the following state distracted-driving laws are also in place:11

  • 14 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving
  • 38 states and Washington D.C. ban all cell phone use by novice drivers, which varies in definition by state (a novice driver in Illinois is anyone under 19, for instance, while Washington D.C. defines a novice driver as anyone with a learners permit)
  • 20 states and Washington D.C. prohibit cell phone use by school bus drivers
  • 46 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers
  • Of the four states without an all driver texting ban, two prohibit text messaging by novice drivers and one restricts school bus drivers from texting

Five Tips to Stop Cell Phone Distracted Driving

Many people are aware that using a cell phone while driving is dangerous, yet for one reason or another continue to do it anyway. NSC's video above is a poignant reminder of how quickly accidents can happen when your mind is occupied by a phone conversation. To help put an end to cell phone distracted driving, NSC recommends these tips:12

  • Make a personal commitment to drive cell phone-free
  • Turn your phone off or put it on silent while driving so you are not tempted to answer it
  • Speak up when you are in the car with someone who uses a cell phone while driving ask if you can do it for them or if it can wait
  • Change your voicemail message to reflect that you are either away from your phone or driving and that you'll call back when you can do so safely
  • If you are talking to someone who you know is driving tell him/her to hang up and call you later

You can also take NSC's online pledge to be an attentive driver. If you're a parent with teenaged children, encourage them to take the pledge as well, which states:

"I pledge to Take Back My Drive for my own safety and for others with whom I share the roads. I choose to not drive distracted in any way I will not:

  • Have a phone conversation —handheld, hands-free, or via Bluetooth
  • Text or send Snapchats
  • Use voice-to-text features in my vehicle's dashboard system
  • Update Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Vine or other social media
  • Check or send emails
  • Take selfies or film videos
  • Input destinations into GPS (while the vehicle is in motion)
  • Call or message someone else when I know they are driving"