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No such thing as safe texting on the road, proves RAC Foundation

21 October 2008

Texting behind the wheel impairs driving skills more than being drunk or under the influence of drugs, according to research carried out by TRL for the RAC Foundation.

But, despite the danger, 48% of UK drivers aged 18-24 admit to using short message services (SMS) whilst driving - a group already at much higher risk of being involved in a crash.

Now, the RAC Foundation is calling for urgent investment in a high-profile education campaign, designed to raise awareness among those young people who have grown up with mobile phones, that texting and driving puts themselves, their friends, and other road users at unacceptable risk.

Carrying out the first UK research into the effects of texting while driving, the RAC Foundation and TRL used TRL’s driving simulator to research the effects of writing, reading and ignoring text messages on the driving skills of a test group of 17-24 year old motorists. In all key measures of driving performance, young people who were texting and driving were badly affected:

  • Reaction times deteriorated by over one-third (35%). This was worse than alcohol at the legal limit (12% slower) and driving under the influence of cannabis (21% slower)
  • Drivers drifted out of their lane more often - steering control was 91% worse, compared to 35% worse when under the influence of cannabis
  • The ability to maintain a safe following distance fell.

TRL’s experts concluded that: “In real world traffic situations, it is suggested that poorer control of vehicle speed, lateral position, and increased reaction times in this situation would increase the likelihood of collision dramatically.”

Comparing the level of distraction caused by texting to previous TRL studies into the impairment effects of drugs, alcohol (at the legal limit) and speaking on a mobile, the report concluded that texting had the greatest impact on lane positioning; and the second greatest impact on reaction times, second only to using a hand-held phone, making texting while driving more risky than driving while on drugs or under the influence of alcohol.

Dr Nick Reed, senior human factors researcher at TRL, said: “This research demonstrates how dangerous it is to drive and text. When texting, drivers are distracted by taking their hand off the wheel to use their phone, by trying to read small text on the phone display, and by thinking about how to write their message. This combination of factors resulted in the impairments to reaction time and vehicle control that place the driver at a greater risk than having consumed alcohol to the legal limit for driving.”