The Risks of Communications Technology and Driving

Texting and Driving Safety

The Risks of Communications Technology and Driving

Just as more and more American states are enacting legislation to restrict the use of cellular phones while driving, an even more deadly habit has grown into a major concern: texting while driving. When cell phone use was becoming commonplace a little more than a decade ago, public safety experts began pointing out the potential risks associated with the use of cell phones by drivers. As a result, New York States became the fist state to enact cell phone bans in motor vehicle codes making it an enforceable and summonsable infraction (AHAS, 2005; Hennessy & Wiesenthal, 2005). Several other states followed that lead and have since implemented similar legislation requiring drivers who use cell phones to use a hands-free device (AHAS, 2005; Hennessy & Wiesenthal, 2005).

In principle, these new vehicular codes are well-intentioned but probably insufficient to reduce the specific risks posed by the use of cell phones by drivers. They are designed only to prevent drivers from looking at their handheld phones, presumably for dialling purposes, and from occupying their hands with cell phones when they are supposed to be holding the steering wheel and watching the road. That approach is insufficient for two specific reasons: (1) hands-free devices only allow the driver to speak without holding the phone; they do not necessarily eliminate the need for the driver to focus his visual attention on the phone to dial or identify in-coming callers, and (2) the most significant way that using cell phones while driving poses a safety risk has more to do with the nature of the neural patterns in the driver’s brain associated with the mental task of having a conversation over the phone; it is not just a matter of visual distraction at all (AHAS, 2005; Hennessy & Wiesenthal, 2005, NYSDU, 2010).

According to brain experts and human cognition researchers, the human brain relies on different areas and mental processes when a person is having an in-person, face-to-face conversation and a conversation with someone who is not present, such as over a telephonic conversation (Chisholm, Caird, & Lockhart, 2007; Hennessy & Wiesenthal, 2005). The importance of that fact is that the areas of the brain and the mental processes involved in conversations with remote participants overlap substantially with the areas of the brain that are most important for perceiving, processing, and reacting to visual information from the external environment (Chisholm, Caird, & Lockhart, 2007; Hennessy & Wiesenthal, 2005). Nevertheless, current legislation restricting cell phone use is still based on the more obvious danger of drivers being visually distracted by communications equipment in their hands.

Texting — Even More Dangerous than Talking on Cell Phones

The evidence is clear that the cognitive processes involved in carrying on a telephone conversation while driving dramatically increases the risk of serious accidents and even fatal accidents (Chisholm, Caird, & Lockhart, 2007; Hennessy & Wiesenthal, 2005). Statistically, talking on a Cellphone while driving increases the likelihood of an accident as much as being legally impaired by alcohol consumption (Hosking, Young, Regan, 2007). However, the more recent problem of communicating via text messages (“texting”) while driving is even more dangerous than talking on the phone. That is because texting also involves the same brain regions and cognitive processes as communicating by telephone that are responsible for the dangers associated with cell phones and driving and combines that risk factor with another additional independent risk factor: visual distraction.

Unlike cell phones, which distract the driver visually for only a small percentage of the time when they are being used for verbal communication, texting while driving is a continuous visual distraction by its very nature that makes it much more dangerous by comparison. Whereas cell phone users only look at their devices to dial and identify in-coming calls drivers who text must continually shift their attention back and forth from watching the road to looking at their communications devices. Especially at typical highway speeds, the amount of time typically required to look at a mobile device for texting purposes is too much time to look away from the road in the event the driver encounters any type of emergency or other situation requiring an immediate response and driver input into vehicle controls (Chisholm, Caird, & Lockhart, 2007). At highway speeds, texting while driving is a modern form of Russian Roulette using a vehicle instead of a loaded firearm. In congested urban environments, texting while driving may increase the chances of minor vehicular accidents more than driver fatalities, but it also dramatically increases the risk of fatal single-vehicle accidents involving pedestrians (AHAS, 2005; Hennessy & Wiesenthal, 2005, NYSDU, 2010).

As if those specific risks were not bad enough, texting also combines those inherent risks with the additional problem attributable to which drivers tend to do the most texting and which drivers are already considered the most dangerous because of their inexperience and limited judgement-making skills: teenagers (Hosking, Young, Regan, 2007). Already, new teen drivers have the highest risk of accidents because of their inexperience driving and because they tend to underestimate risks in general and overestimate their capabilities in general. The fact that they rely more heavily than any other demographic segment of the population in using texting for communication presents the equivalent of a “perfect storm” of deadly risk factors. The sooner legislators recognize the need to enact more restrictive — and if necessary, more punitive — restrictions on the use of communications equipment while driving the better because any delay in that regard will probably be able to be measured in lives by the thousands.


AHAS. (2005). Fact Sheet: Speeding Accessed 26 Nov 2010 from:

Chisholm, S.L., Caird, J.K., and Lockhart, J. “The effects of practice with MP3 players on driving performance.” Accident Analysis & Prevention, Vol. 40, No. 2;

(2007): 704-713.

Hennessy, D.A. And Wiesenthal, D.L. (2005). Contemporary Issues in Road User

Behavior and Traffic Safety. Toronto: Nova.

Hosking, S., Young, K., and Regan, M. (2007). “The effects of text messaging on young novice driver performance.” in: Faulks, I.J., Regan, M., Stevenson, M., Brown,

J., Porter, a. And Irwin, J.D. (Eds.). Distracted Driving. Sydney, NSW:

Australasian College of Road Safety. Pages 155-187. Accessed 26 Nov 2010 — Regan.pdf

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