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Texting While Driving: Targeted for Extinction
May 31 2012 00:00
Everyone can empathize with Cline. But there are all kinds of distractions in cars, from music menus to onscreen maps. All have the potential to distract, heading you into a guardrail or through a stop sign. Is texting really that much more dangerous? And if so, why?
"A Permanent Part"
of Modern Life
Safety regulators and researchers say texting while driving is indeed more of a concern than other in-car distractions. Texting is widespread, particularly among young drivers who lack experience. Texting is also more distracting than many other driver activities.
"These devices are a permanent part of people's daily lives," says Alan Hall, a spokesman for the Ford Motor Company.In a survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the majority of drivers who admitted texting were between 18 and 29. That means the biggest offenders were also less experienced drivers.
A Distraction Triple-Header
Texting while driving has a particular power to distract because it's an activity that has visual, manual and cognitive components. It requires drivers to look at something other than the road, do something other than handle the wheel and think about something other than driving the car. In other words, texting involves three categories that involve major driver distraction.
Distraction involves more than the act of pressing keys on a cell phone, says Bryan Reimer, associate director of the New England University Transportation Center and a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab. The content of the text can also increase a driver's risk. A short non-emotional text message or conversation that occurs in any medium is likely to be far less distracting than a highly emotional engagement.
Dingus believes that texting's paramount danger is that it's a visual distraction. "You can't drive without looking at the road regardless of how high or low the cognitive demand is," he says.
Is Technology the Fix?
There's a belief that voice systems can help drivers communicate in a safer way, Reimer says. But research on cognitive demands shows that this may not be the case, he says. "There's still the open question as to whether technology integration allows for safer communication or encourages people to communicate more because it's easier," he says. "Any task, easy or complex, that is beyond the activity of driving can be considered as a distraction."
The topic of texting while driving is on fire. That's clear. Bans are increasingly in place and enforcement is ratcheting up. Public awareness campaigns will doubtless increase, too. But it's also clear that it will be a challenge to convince drivers — particularly young ones — to stop texting.
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