Deadly Distraction: Cell Phones and Driving

One out of every 4 car crashes is now caused by drivers using cell phones, and texting has made the game even deadlier.

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Shockingly 1 out of every 4 car crashes is now caused by drivers using cell phones. If you're using a cell phone and driving, you might as well be driving drunk; the deadly habit of texting when behind the wheel is equivalent to drinking 4 beers.

The latest scientific research on driving and cell phone use demonstrates how the human brain goes into overload and cannot handle this kind of multitasking.  Reaction time to what's happening on the road is reduced substantially, and "inattention blindness," a phenomenon where the brain never sees what's in plain sight, occurs.

The distracted driving statistics piling up are frightening:

  • In 2008, more than 1/2 million people were injured in car accidents caused by distracted drivers, most of them using cell phones or texting. Nearly 6,000 fatalities resulted.
  • The AAA Foundation reported in 2009 that 95% of all drivers believe texting or emailing while driving is unsafe, yet, 1 in 5 admit to doing it anyway. In teens that number skyrockets to more than 1 in 2.
  • In a University of Utah study, texting while driving increases the risk of crashing by 8 times, double the risk of causing a wreck while driving drunk.

In a study at Virginal Tech, a driver's reaction time drops by 35% while texting and driving; steering control decreases by 91%.

Neuroscience Behind Texting and Driving

In studying how wireless technology distracts drivers, neuroscientists have identified 2 areas of the brain that play pivotal roles: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPC), a region of the brain's frontal lobe, is critical in refocusing attention when you switch between tasks you are trying to perform at the same time. Current research suggests that the dual act of texting and driving overwhelms the ability of the DLPC to manage attention between multiple tasks. You end up compensating by reacting much more slowly to events on the road, often with dangerous consequences.

The posterior parietal cortex (PPC) is particularly important in spatial perception. During texting and driving this part of the brain also undergoes sensory overload. Driving requires processing spatial input, such as perceiving how far away a stop sign is. Phone or text conversations often also involve spatial processing, especially if the conversation involves giving directions or describing a specific place to someone. The PPC becomes overtaxed in these situations and spatial perception is dramatically impaired.

Neuroscientists report that very few people have the elite brain power to multitask behind the wheel well enough to stay safely on the road; 98% of us simply do not have the sophisticated neurological wiring.  

Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Utah, who's been researching brain function and multitasking for over a decade, says,  "We've looked to see if we can find people who can talk on the phone and drive safely." As part of his research, Dr. Strayer put drivers in a simulator to test their multitasking abilities. "There are 2% of people who might be as gifted as a skilled fighter pilot. But, we have yet to find anybody who can safely text and drive." 

Some states have passed laws that allow talking on a hands-free device. But, says Dr. Strayer, "We don't see any safety advantage at all with hands-free phones. And in fact, when we've looked to see if there's any effect to those laws, it had no effect in reducing fatalities."

The hard evidence is undeniable, providing a wake-up call serious enough to force everyone on the road to put down their cell phones.

To learn more about the dangers of distracted driving and pledge to make your car a No Phone Zone, visit www.oprah.com/nophonezone .