If you use a cell phone, chances are you’re aware of “text messaging”—brief messages limited to 160 characters that can be sent or received on all modern mobile phones. Texting, also known as SMS (for short message service), is on the rise, up from 9.8 billion messages a month in December ’05 to 110.4 billion in December ’08. Undoubtedly, more than a few of those messages are being sent by people driving cars.
Is texting while driving a dangerous idea? We decided to conduct a test.
Previous academic studies—much more scientific than ours—conducted in vehicle simulators have shown that texting while driving impairs the driver’s abilities. But as far as we know, no study has been conducted in a real vehicle that is being driven. Also, we decided to compare the results of texting to the effects of drunk driving, on the same day and under the exact same conditions. Not surprisingly, Car and Driver doesn’t receive a lot of research grants.
To keep things simple, we would focus solely on the driver’s reaction times to a light mounted on the windshield at eye level, meant to simulate a lead car’s brake lights. Wary of the potential damage to man and machine, all of the driving would be done in a straight line. We rented the taxiway of the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport in Oscoda, Michigan, adjacent to an 11,800-foot runway that used to be home to a squadron of B-52 bombers. Given the prevalence of the BlackBerry, the iPhone, and other text-friendly mobile phones, the test subjects would have devices with full “qwerty” keypads and would be using text-messaging phones familiar to them. Web intern Jordan Brown, 22, armed with an iPhone, would represent the younger crowd. The older demographic would be covered by head honcho Eddie Alterman, 37 (or 259 in dog years), using a Samsung Alias. (Alterman also uses a BlackBerry for e-mail. We didn’t use it in the test.)
Our long-term Honda Pilot served as the test vehicle. When the red light on the windshield lit up, the driver was to hit the brakes. The author, riding shotgun, would use a hand-held switch to trigger the red light and monitor the driver’s results. A Racelogic VBOX III data logger combined and recorded the test data from three areas: vehicle speed via the VBOX’s GPS antenna; brake-pedal position and steering angle via the Pilot’s OBD II port; and the red light’s on/off status through an analog input. Each trial would have the driver respond five times to the light, and the slowest reaction time (the amount of time between the activation of the light and the driver hitting the brakes) was dropped.
Trigger happy: Austin (right) triggers the windshield-mounted light in simulation of a leading car’s brake lights. Brown ignores it.
First, we tested both drivers’ reaction times at 35 mph and 70 mph to get baseline readings. Then we repeated the driving procedure while they read a text message aloud (a series of Caddyshack quotes). This was followed by a trial with the drivers typing the same message they had just received. Both of our lab rats were instructed to use their phones exactly as they would on a public road, which, if Jordan’s mom or Eddie’s wife are reading this, they never do.
Our test subjects then got out of the vehicle and concentrated on getting slightly intoxicated. They wanted something that would work quickly: screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice). Between the two of them, they knocked back all but three ounces of a fifth of Smirnoff. Soon they were laughing at all our jokes, asking for cigarettes, and telling us about some previous time they got drunk that was totally awesome. We had them blow into a Lifeloc FC10 breath-alcohol analyzer until they reached the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content. We then put them behind the wheel and ran the light-and-brake test without any texting distraction.