Study: texting while driving disables driver's vital 'sixth sense'

Texting while driving is a serious problem, and it has resulted in far too many pointless deaths. Auto makers have rolled out campaigns in an attempt to educate the public about its dangers, cities have cracked down against such drivers, and researchers have even created devices that disable your car if you get distracted. The problem persists, however, and a new study has shed light on just how dangerous it is: texting while driving doesn't activate a 'sixth sense' that usually protects drivers while on the road.

That conclusion was made by researchers with Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the University of Houston. In a study lead by UH's Ioannis Pavlidis and TTI's Robert Wunderlich, the researchers monitored 59 volunteers as they drove over the same portion of the same highway, each time under different conditions.

The first time, the volunteers drove under 'normal conditions,' meaning there were no overt distractions and they paid attention to the road. The second time, the drivers were distracted with 'cognitively challenging questions,' the third time they were challenged with 'emotionally charged questions,' and, finally, they were challenged with driving while 'preoccupied with texting trivialities.'

The researchers didn't know the order in which the volunteers were tested, though, to make sure they didn't skew their results toward a certain bias.

At the end of it all, the conclusion was solid — while all three types of distracted driving resulted in what the researchers call a 'jittery' handling of the steering wheel, only texting caused unsafe driving, causing volunteers to make "significant lane deviations" and more.

In an interesting contrast, though, the emotionally-charged and absentminded driving caused drivers to assume a jittery handling that made them drive even straighter than when driving in normal conditions.

The reason, the researchers postulate, is the brain's anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This region engages in automatic error correction (such as 'jittering' the left when you should keep the steering wheel straight), but only if the eye-hand coordination loop is complete. Drivers break this loop when they look down at their phone, driving with one hand on the wheel while the other taps buttons, eyes darting between road and phone.

In the future, vehicles could feature a 'jitter' detector that recognizes when the driver is distracted based on how they are handling the steering wheel.

SOURCE: University of Houston