I’m slow to post on this, but I was glad to see Car and Driver address the issue of texting while driving. The result was unsurprising to anyone who’s looked into the human factors work on attention and distraction, though I liked the eye-catching pairing with impaired driving.
A few further thoughts:
In some other reports on this experiment, I saw the phrase “real world driving” used. The Car and Drive trial was not real-world driving. It was a real car on real asphalt, but had about as much relevance to the real world of traffic as the traffic-free car ads shot in the desert (on ‘closed courses’) have to the actual experience of driving in America.
Related to this, the stimulus that they were meant to respond to was just that: A single stimulus. In real traffic there could be any number of other hazards to potentially respond to than a simple light in front of you (and these would come with less expectation).
The fact that the younger drivers had better response times says more about the response times of younger people than it does driving safety; we need to balance out the faster response time with the risk taking and decision-making skills of younger drivers, which means, among other things, they’re probably driving faster, less able to scan the full extent of the road for hazards, more likely to be doing more texting, thus increasing exposure, etc. etc.
Similarly, the texting task was quite simple and repetitive, and so doesn’t adequately cover the range of distractions that could be posed — i.e., thinking about the text you’ve read, thinking about how to respond, retrieving some bit of information from short-term memory, etc. etc.
Lastly, I would have enjoyed seeing hands-free and hand-held cell phones thrown in there as well. That issue is not “finished” as the even greater hazard of texting arrives.
I’m sure there’s other factors to think about, and readers please feel free to suggest any.
The authors conclude:
In our test, neither subject had any idea that using his phone would slow down his reaction time so much. Like most folks, they think they’re pretty good drivers. Our results prove otherwise, at both city and highway speeds. The key element to driving safely is keeping your eyes and your mind on the road. Text messaging distracts any driver from that primary task. So the next time you’re tempted to text, tweet, e-mail, or otherwise type while driving, either ignore the urge or pull over. We don’t want you rear-ending us.
The above-average-effect is alive and well…