US: Don't text and drive

The development of voice-activated in-car phone systems is likely to be boosted by research at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute which has found that texting on a mobile phone while driving significantly increases risk of a crash.

A series of studies observed heavy truck and light car drivers using in-vehicle cameras for more than 6 million miles combined. In the light vehicle study, researchers found the risk of a crash or near crash increased almost 3% when drivers were dialling their mobile phones.

In the heavy truck study, the long-haul truck drivers were more than 23% more likely to crash or nearly crash while texting on their phones.

Tasks which drew drivers' eyes away from the road raised the risk of crashing most, said a communiqué from the institute. Truckers who texted while driving took their eyes off the road on average 4.6 seconds out of six, the study found.

The dangers of cell phone use in the car was still not as risky as driving drunk, the statement added, because it was simply a matter of keeping your eyes on the road.

"Using simple fatal crash and phone use statistics, if talking on cell phones was as risky as driving while drunk, the number of fatal crashes would have increased roughly 50% in the last decade instead of remaining largely unchanged."

Despite this, VTTI's public relations and marketing manager Sherri Box said the study's results should not be ignored.

"Our goal is to conduct the research and make the results available so legislators have real data to base new legislation on which will keep us all safer on our nation's highways. We are very pleased with the proposed state and national texting bans as a result of our research as it will hopefully save lives and make drivers much more aware of distractions while behind the wheel of their vehicles," Box said.

Already in Virginia, drivers under 18 are not allowed to use cell phones while driving. Hand-held cell phones have been completely banned while driving in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Several other states have given municipalities power to ban the distracting gadgets on a local level.

The institute is the largest university-level research centre at Virginia Tech and was founded in 1996. Box said the study was headed by PhD students who were supported by undergraduate and graduate students as well as full-time research assistants and scientists.