Drivers take twice the time to react to an accident-like situation if they are texting a long message or having a long conversation while driving.
A study by the Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay (IITB) found that the response time of Indian drivers distracted by mobile phones – when put on a driving simulator – varied based on the task vis-à-vis the situation they encountered. The two-member team found that 60% of the 100 licensed drivers conversed on their mobile phones while driving, and about 16% responded to text messages. When pedestrians crossed the road, for instance, reaction time of drivers sending complex text messages comprising more than 10 characters increased by 204%, and by 137% during a simple text message of up to 10 characters. In the same situation, and when the drivers were involved in a complex conversation, response time went up by 95% as compared to 40% during a simple conversation.
In another situation where vehicles crossed the road, the response time of drivers while sending complex and simple text messages rose by 171% and 121%. Similarly, reaction time of the drivers engaged in complex conversation increased by 65% and by 48% during simple conversations.
In India, there are almost two road accidents every minute, killing at least one person. Motor vehicle rules in India prohibit drivers from using mobile phones while on the road, but the rules are not strictly enforced. An online survey in 2012 to assess the risk of mobile phone use found that 31% who used a mobile phone during driving had an accident.
Researchers said the driver’s reaction time is one of the main factors to decide whether or not a crash can be avoided. “A majority of Indians use mobile phones while driving. When a mobile phone is not used during driving, and there is an obstacle ahead, the driver has enough reaction time to break, accelerate or change lanes,” said Nagendra R Velaga, assistant professor, civil engineering department, IITB.
Velaga said, “But phone use when driving decreases awareness during situations, and delays response to events in driving environment which may lead to accidents. Phone use is the most significant factor in degrading driving performance.”
Road safety experts said in addition to lack of awareness among drivers, the absence of stringent enforcement of the rules has meant that drivers get away with speaking or texting on mobile phones.
“Today, drivers use hands-free technology such as Bluetooth to have a conversation, which is very difficult for traffic police to detect. They also have their mind on what to reply to text messages while driving. This diverts the driver’s mind away from the road and leads to accidents and collisions,” said Ashutosh Atray of Road Safe Foundation.
Atray said, “To curb drivers from using mobile phones, laws should be specific against the use of hands-free technology. Awareness also needs to be created on the dangers of driving using mobile phones.”
In the study, 100 licensed drivers of varied ages were put on a simulated route similar to rural national highways (Mumbai-Goa, for instance). Though the sample size is small, researchers said the number was significant and indicative of a larger trend of phone use while driving. A number of international studies on the same have sample sizes of up to 50 drivers.
The drivers were given four phone use tasks – simple conversation, complex conversation, simple texting and complex texting – that would distract them. Running parallel with the tasks, drivers were put through two situations to assess their reaction time – pedestrians crossed the road, and parked vehicles (cars and trucks) crossing the road.
Simple conversation involved questions such as “where did you go for your last trip?”, and arithmetic problems (multiplication and addition) and logical puzzle questions formed part of complex conversations.
Simple texting tasks comprised replying with up to 10 characters to questions such as “what is your favourite game?”, and complex texting involved more than 10 characters with questions like “Your address”?
Of the 100 drivers, 36% responded to all call while driving, 25% to one or two calls a day during driving, and 39% didn’t respond as a matter of habit. As for texting, 4% drivers sent more than three messages during driving in a day, 12% sent two or three messages during driving in a week, and the remaining 84% sent messages once or twice per month.
Globally, road accidents account for 2.2% deaths, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks road accidents as the ninth leading cause of deaths. A two-year study in Perth, western Australia, found that 14% of road crashes were due to the use of mobile phone. A 2011 WHO report rated the use of mobile phone for sending text messages while driving as high as 45%, 16.67%, and 27% in the United Kingdom, Australia and US. Young drivers are more prone to using mobile phones indicative through a study where 58% young drivers read text messages, and 37% sent messages while driving.
“The statistical results and proofs of the present study can help regulatory bodies of developing countries, to spread the public awareness about the serious negative impacts associated with phone use during driving,” the study concluded.