Study: Texting slows driver's reaction time

John Egan

A driver’s reaction time is doubled when distracted by reading or sending a text message, according to new research from the Texas Transportation Institute. Researchers say their study, released Oct. 5, shows texting behind the wheel is more dangerous than previously thought.

“If you look down to text for just a few seconds at 55 miles per hour, your car travels the length of a football field while you’re not looking at the road,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says in a statement responding to the study. LaHood's comments were reported by The Associated Press. “Texting and talking on the phone while driving can be deadly, and drivers have a responsibility to put away these distracting devices every time they get behind the wheel.”

The Texas Transportation Institute study is the first published work in United States that examines texting while driving in a real driving environment. The study worked like this:

Participants typed a story of their choice (usually a simple fairy tale), and also read and answered questions related to another story -- both on their smartphones in a laboratory setting. Each participant then navigated a test track featuring an open section and a section lined by construction barrels. Drivers first drove the course without texting, then repeated both lab tasks separately while driving through the course again. Throughout the test-track exercise, each participant’s reaction time to a periodic flashing light was recorded.

Reaction times without texting activity typically were between one and two seconds. Reaction times while texting, however, were at least three to four seconds. Worse yet, drivers were more than 11 times more likely to miss the flashing light altogether when they were texting. Researchers say the study's findings extend to other driving distractions that involve reading or writing, such as checking email or Facebook.

The study, sponsored by the Southwest Region University Transportation Center, was managed by Christine Yager, an associate transportation researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute's Center for Transportation Safety. More than 40 drivers ages 16 to 54 participated.

“Most research on texting and driving has been limited to driving simulators. This study involved participants driving an actual vehicle," Yager says in a news release. “So one of the more important things we know now that we didn’t know before is that response times are even slower than we previously thought.”

Federal statistics indicate that distracted driving contributes to as many as one-fifth of all deadly crashes, and that cellphones are the primary source of driver distraction.

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