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Think It’s Safe to Text when Stopped at Traffic Lights?

By: Anapol Weiss

Think again. The distracting effect of using electronic devices persists even after we stop their use.

It is a rare distracted driving presentation in which someone does not tell me that they don’t drive distracted because they limit texting, Snapchat or Instagram to times when they are stopped in traffic. They reason that since they are stopped, it has to be safe. What could be wrong with looking away from the road at your smart phone while stopped in traffic?

According to researchers from the University of Utah, there’s quite a bit wrong with it. David Strayer, PhD and Joel Cooper, PhD, working on a grant from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, studied the effect of using voice-activated features on smart phones and voice-activated systems that are factory installed in newer cars. They chose to study voice-activated features so they could isolate any mental or cognitive distraction and distinguish that from manual and visual distractions. Some have argued that if our eyes are on the road and our hands are on the wheel, our voices should be safe to change radio stations, send texts or make phone calls. Strayer and Cooper have extensively studied cognitive driving distractions and had concluded in earlier studies that “hands-free is not risk-free,” and that trying to add tasks while driving overloads our brains and adversely affects concentration and driving performance.

Similar to previous studies, they found that using voice-activated features (both on smart phones, i.e. Apple Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana, as well as those factory-installed in 10 makes of automobiles) resulted in moderate to high levels of distraction for drivers. Those results were not surprising given prior research. But what was surprising was that they found that even after stopping using these features, drivers were still distracted for an additional 18 seconds following smart phone use and up to 27 additional seconds following using factory-installed systems.

Here is a graphic from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showing those results:

So, it takes our brains a while to reset, or refocus on driving after engaging in highly distracting activities. A lot can happen in 18 or 27 seconds of driving. Now we have another reason to put those phones away while driving.