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The first study of drivers texting while operating their vehicles shows that the crash risk of doing so is much higher than previous estimates from laboratory research and significantly surpasses the dangers of other driving distractions. The study, which involved outfitting the cabs of long-haul trucks with video cameras over a year-and-a-half, showed that a texting driver’s collision risk is 23 times greater than when not texting.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute also measured the time drivers took their eyes from the road to send or receive a text, finding that it was nearly five seconds in instances that resulted in a crash or near crash. Although tractor-trailers are less maneuverable than cars, the findings generally apply to all drivers. The researchers said that car drivers tend to exhibit the same behaviors and that the study did not show that truckers texted more or less than typical drivers.

Rich Hanowski, who oversaw the study at the institute, said that the analysis was partially financed by $300,000 from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which is responsible for improving safety in trucks and buses. The research was a significant undertaking, requiring $6 million to equip trucks with cameras and track them for three million miles.

Tom Dingus, director of the institute, says the study clearly shows that you should not text while driving. The final analysis of the data is undergoing peer review before formal publication.

Only fourteen states ban texting while driving, and legislators in some states have rejected such bans, saying they need more data. One difficulty in measuring crashes caused by texting drivers is that police agencies do not collect this data or compile long-term studies. Several recent crashes have drawn attention to the issue, including a May crash involving a Boston trolley car driver who was texting his girlfriend.

Texting overall has seen a sharp increase, with U.S. phone users sending 110 billion texts in December according to the cell phone industry’s trade group, CTIA.

The results of the Virginia Tech study are bolstered by a University of Utah study that showed that college students using a driving simulator were eight times more likely to crash when texting. That study, undergoing peer review and submitted for publication in the Journal for Human Factors, also found that drivers removed their eyes from the road for approximately five seconds when texting.

David Strayer, a professor who co-wrote the University of Utah report, offered two potential reasons for his study showing lower risks than the Virginia Tech study. The first is the decreased maneuverability of tractor-trailers, and the second is that the college students in his study might be more capable of multitasking.

The Virginia Tech research focused on texting among truck drivers because it was relatively new and better reflected the explosive growth of texting. Another study from the organization will focus on texting among light-vehicle drivers, especially teenagers. Early results from that study show comparable levels of risk between light-vehicle drivers and truckers.

Researchers disagree on whether to place greater value on naturalistic or laboratory studies, but all agree that the scientific results show that texting poses a much greater risk to drivers than other distractions.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety plans to publish polling that shows that 87 percent of people consider drivers texting or emailing to post a significant hazard. However, 21 percent of drivers confirm that they have recently texted or emailed while driving. About half of drivers age 16 to 24 report texting while driving, compared with 22 percent of drivers 35 to 44.

Those readers of this blog who reside in Virginia (this writer’s home state) should know that Virginia passed a law effective on July 1, 2009, making texting while driving illegal. This seems like common sense, but we all, at times, think we can do more than we actually can.

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