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August 23, 2010

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Professor Profile: The dangers of texting and driving

Paul Atchley quanitifies risk phone use adds for motorists

Anyone who’s been in a car in the past few years has seen someone texting while driving. The phenomenon may be more prevalent, and dangerous, than most realize.

Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology, has studied texting while driving. In a survey of KU students, he found that only 2 percent of respondents report not texting and driving at all. In a new KU YouTube video, Atchley discusses attention, texting while driving, its ubiquity and criticisms of speaking out against the behavior.

“One of the things we’ve discovered, I’d say, over the last 30 years is this idea called the ‘grand illusion,’” Atchley said. “And that is this idea that when we have our eyes open, we sort of see everything. But what the eye can see and what the brain actually detects are two very different things. Because we have a limited amount of information that we can process, and that’s where attention comes in.”

Naturally, when a driver diverts attention from the road, to the radio, to talk to a passenger or check his or her phone, that is attention not being paid to traffic. Atchley’s research has shown that texting while driving requires so much attention it is about a 2,400 percent increase in accident risk. Talking on a hands-free cell phone is about a 500 percent increase and driving while drunk is actually lower than both, at 400 percent.

“Text messaging while driving is probably the most dangerous thing you can do in a vehicle other than driving with your eyes closed,” Atchley said. “In fact, it kind of is like driving with your eyes closed, in that the average amount of time someone spends looking away from the roadway while text messaging is about four seconds per text message. So if you can imagine driving down the road and closing your eyes for four seconds, you can get some idea of what it’s like to text message while driving.”

In work sponsored by KU’s Transportation Research Institute, Atchley surveyed KU students to see just how prevalent the behavior was. The numbers may be surprising to some. Seventy percent reported that they initiate text messages while driving. The number climbed to 82 percent when asked how many replied to texts while driving, and 94 reported reading messages while driving. When accounting for those who said they only text while stopped, at a red light for instance, only about 2 percent said they do not text at all while driving. The findings will be published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.

People often ask why cell phone use while driving is criticized more than behaviors such as using the radio, talking to passengers, putting on makeup or eating while driving. The difference, Atchley said is in magnitude of the behaviors. About 60 to 80 percent of cell phone minutes are used in vehicles. When that number is multiplied by the number of people who have cell phones, the number dwarfs the other behaviors.

Laws are increasingly being passed to prohibit the practice of text messaging while driving. However, Atchley said he doesn’t anticipate the behavior will decline sharply until it becomes more immediately apparent to people just how dangerous the behavior is.

“Though everyone’s seen someone texting while driving or talking on a cell phone, not enough of us have had firsthand experience of someone getting injured or killed as a result of that,” Atchley said. “That’ll happen, unfortunately, and when it reaches a certain point, we’ll decide that this is something we have to deal with.”


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