May 5, 2009 -- Driving while text messaging or fiddling with an MP3 player is dangerous -- even more hazardous than talking on a cell phone, a new study shows.
Researchers at Eastern Virginia Medical School and Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk enlisted 21 teens between the ages of 16 and 18 to take part in a series of simulated driving experiments.
Each teen sat in the bucket seat of a simulated car, driving the vehicle through simulated scenery, in rural, then urban settings in 10-minute time blocks.
First they drove through the virtual scenes without distractions of any kind. Then they drove through the same scenes while text messaging, while talking on a cell phone, and finally while operating an MP3 music player, Donald Lewis, MD, chief of Eastern Virginia Medical School’s department of pediatrics and co-researcher, tells WebMD.
The findings, although not surprising, were frightening, Lewis says.
Except in the time block when the teens weren’t distracted by a device requiring finger movement, they steered the virtual vehicles erratically, weaving in and out of lanes and running over virtual people.
Their driving was worst when they were texting, probably because texting forces people to look down in addition to moving their fingers, Lewis says.
Mistakes included slowing down dramatically and weaving more than a foot outside their simulated lane, Lewis tells WebMD.
Each of the participants had at least six months of driving experience. Anyone diagnosed with an attention disorder or who had a history of unsafe driving was excluded, as were teens who reported the use of alcohol or excessive amounts of caffeine.
When distracted, the teens did worse in urban driving, Lewis says. But whether driving in a virtual city or on a virtual country road, they did poorest when texting, Lewis says.
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Baltimore.
“It’s good for us to increase community awareness that this can be a problem,” LaPrecious Harrold, MD, lead study author and a resident physician at the medical school and hospital, says in a news release.
Lewis says the study shows distracted drivers changed speeds, mostly slowing down, and also increased “lane position deviation.”
He adds: “You’re a hazardous driver to yourself and everybody else.”
Lewis says a growing body of research suggests that texting while driving is a rapidly increasing problem. In Virginia, young drivers are not allowed by law to use cell phones, but he says the statute is difficult to enforce because it’s tough for police to gauge driver age.
“What’s clear is that the more finger involvement you have, the more dangerous you are,” Lewis tells WebMD. “Talking on a cell phone affects driving, but when you start to do things like dialing, texting, or messing with your MP3 player, you’re more likely to have speed variability and lane variation.”
According to a recent study by the American Automobile Association, the risk of a car accident increases by 50% for people who text message while driving. A few states have banned texting while driving, “and they all should,” Lewis says.