Text Me Later

Everyone knows that texting while driving is, to put it mildly, a bad idea.  Each year, thousands of people are killed or injured by "distracted drivers," a category which includes distractions by phone.  The statistics are readily available and heavily publicized.  In fact, AT&T has run a campaign called "It Can Wait," which is geared towards raising awareness of the dangers of texting while driving.

In spite of the risks, though, you probably know someone who has texted while driving.  (In fact, that person may be you.)  Given that it's such risky behavior, why is it also so common?

One reason may be that people simply don't think too deeply about the potential for catastrophe when they take their eyes off of the road.  But a little bit of math provides some sobering insight.  For example, suppose you're driving a car at 30 miles per hour down a city street.  That's 30 miles every 60 minutes, or 30 ÷ 60 = 0.5 miles per minute.  This is the same as 0.5 ÷ 60 ≈ 0.0083 miles per second, which isn't a particularly intuitive number.  However, since there are 5,280 feet in a mile, this is the same as 0.0083 × 5,280, or around 44 feet per second.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a driver takes his or her eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds while sending or receiving a text.  At 44 feet per second, a car will travel just over 200 feet in that amount of time.  Driving faster, of course, only makes things worse: on the highway at 70 mph, the car will travel around 470 feet, which is more than one-and-a-half times the length of a football field!

This sort of number crunching may not persuade those who are most at risk, though: teenage drivers.  Not only do teens love to text, but on average they are also much worse drivers.  In 2010, for instance, 3,115 teenagers died in motor vehicle accidents, compared to 29,770 non-teens (this according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety).  Those numbers may not sound that impressive, but when paired with overall mortality statistics they become quite surprising: only 10,877 teens died that year, compared to 2,457,558 non-teens.  That means that roughly 29% of teens who died in 2010 died because of a motor-vehicle accident, compared to only around 1% for everyone else!  For teenagers, being in a car is already a leading cause of death.  Throw texting into the mix, and the risk only increases.

But even this argument may not convince teens to stop texting and driving.  After all, some teens may argue that they are simply better at multitasking than others (especially older people), and so they can handle looking at their phone operating a metal box that weighs thousands of pounds.  Regardless of whether or not such a claim is true (and it probably isn't), just being great at multitasking won't save you from the risks of distracted driving.  In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, roughly 40% of people who were killed in distraction-affected crashes in 2010 were people other than the distracted driver.  So just being great at texting while driving doesn't guarantee you won't be involved in an accident caused by another distracted driver.

Because of this, hopefully we can all agree that some serious restrictions on texting and driving make sense.  But what exactly should those restrictions look like, and what punishments should befall those who are caught with their eyes on their phones instead of on the road?  With technology moving so quickly, these are still open questions.

Teachers: want to discuss the perils of texting while driving with your students, and discuss how distracted drivers should be penalized?  Then check out our new lesson, Text Me Later.

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