Is texting while driving really worse than drunk driving?

Image Gallery: Car Safety Is there proof that texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving? See more car safety pictures.
AP Photo/Jim Cole

Texting, or short message service (SMS), is a quick form of communication that allows users to send 160 characters or less to and from their cell phones and smartphones. A study by the Pew Research group in 2009 and 2010 reported that out of the number of Americans who have cell phones, 58 percent of adults and 66 percent of teens use them to text [source: Motavalli]. With these high percentages of Americans using text messaging every year, many are bringing the habit along with them when they drive. The same Pew study showed that 34 percent of teens who use their phone for texting said they've done it while driving, and 47 percent of adults who texted said they had done it while driving, too [source: Motavalli].

In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that almost 6,000 fatalities and over half of a million injuries were due to accidents caused by drivers who were distracted [source: Motavalli]. The study wasn't focused on texting, but it does show the seriousness of driving while distracted. Like many other driving distractions, texting involves a certain amount of mental attention as well as physical application which may be why 28 states have banned drivers from texting while operating a vehicle [source: Motavalli].


But is there really proof that texting while driving is more dangerous than drunk driving? Even though research is just now being done to measure the effects of texting while driving, some in the automotive industry and others in research circles say that texting is definitely more dangerous than drunk driving. Mainly because taking a driver's eyes off the road significantly cuts down on his or her ability to react to changes.

On the next page, we'll take a look at two specific examples of how texting has been found to impair a driver's ability more than driving while intoxicated.


Texting While Driving is Worse Than Drunk Driving

A cell phone is held in a vehicle in Berlin, Vt.
AP Photo/Toby Talbot

In 2009, Car and Driver conducted a driving test with their editor-in-chief and an intern to prove or disprove that texting while driving was more dangerous than drunk driving. The first step of their experiment was to test and measure the reaction times of both drivers while driving sober with no distractions, and then while reading and sending text messages on their cell phones. A light mounted to the front windshield simulated a car braking in front of them [source: Austin].

As they read and sent text messages, their response time was measured based on the time it took between when the brake light came on and when the driver applied the brakes at both 35 miles per hour (56.3 kilometers per hour) and at 70 miles per hour (112.7 kilometers per hour) [source: Chang]. Both drivers had a longer response time while reading and sending the text messages when compared to driving without any distractions. After the initial test, both drivers then consumed alcohol and reached the legal driving limit for intoxication in their state. After running the same test again while driving drunk, response times for both drivers were better when the driver was drunk, compared to when they were reading or sending text messages while sober. Car and Driver writers mentioned that the test was performed on a closed airport runway, with no road signs and no turns. Although this test was performed on a closed course, slow response times due to texting could result in serious consequences in real-world driving situations.


Another test conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory in London took it a step further. It found that drivers who texted had slower response times, were more likely to drift in and out of lanes and even drove worse than those who were driving while high on marijuana [source: Nugent]. The study found that reaction times for those who texted while driving were 35 percent worse than when they drove without any distractions at all. When driving while intoxicated, the reaction time was only 12 percent worse than when the driver was sober and driving without any texting distractions [source: Nugent]. The researchers also found that there was a significant decrease in ability to maintain a safe driving distance between vehicles while texting and steering control dropped by 91 percent compared to driving without distraction [source: Nugent]. One of the study's commissioners eventually concluded that texting while driving is one of the most dangerous things a driver could do while behind the wheel of a car.

For more information about how texting while driving is worse than drunk driving, follow the links on the next page.


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  • Austin, Michael. "Texting While Driving: How Dangerous is it?" Car and Driver. June 2009. (June 23, 2010) dangerous_is_it_-feature
  • Chang, Richard S. "Texting is More Dangerous than Drunk Driving." The New York Times. June 25, 2009. (June 20, 2010)
  • Motavalli, Jim. "Study Finds Adult Drivers Are the Worst Text Messaging Offenders." The New York Times. June 24, 2010. (June 24, 2010)
  • Nugent, Helen. "Texting While Driving is More Dangerous Than Drink-Driving." The Sunday Times. Sept. 18, 2008. (June 22, 2010)