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Driving and texting? Stop it, now!

January 1,2018 Read time: 4 mins
Photo : Purabi Deshpande / Research Matters

A study by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) has shown how using mobile phones while driving can distract drivers and affect their ability to handle hazardous situations. The results of the study has shown that both calling and texting while driving degrades the performance of a driver.

According to a report by the World Health Organization, road accidents are the 9th leading cause of deaths. In India, a country where an accident happens every minute and a life is lost every four minutes, a previous study revealed that 31% of the drivers who used a mobile phone during driving met with accidents. The current study analysed and modelled the effects of mobile phone distraction on reaction time of drivers belonging to different age groups in India. 

“There are various differences in the driving behaviours between Indian drivers and drivers in the developed nations, like poor lane disciplines and a small gap between two vehicles. Moreover, there is also a difference in the phone use habits. About 60% of drivers use phones while driving among all the participants in the present study, which shows a huge ‘talking and driving’ trend among the Indian drivers”, says Prof. Nagendra R. Velaga, Associate Professor at IITB. He, along with his co-author Ms. Pushpa Choudhary, have undertaken this study.

The study was conducted on 100 licensed drivers of three different age groups: young (below 30 years of age), mid- age (30 - 50 years) and old (above 50 years). Using a simulator, the participants drove under five scenarios. The first was without using a phone. The second included having a simple conversation over the phone like ‘Where did you go for your last trip?’. The third scenario included having complex conversations like solving arithmetic problems and logical puzzles. The fourth scenario focused on simple texting where the driver replied with short text messages of  up to 10 characters, and the fifth on complex texting where the drivers replied with longer text messages.

For each of these scenarios, the total drive was 3.5 km long, and had one hazardous event -- a parked vehicle or a pedestrian crossing the road. The researchers then measured the ‘reaction time’ for each driver. “The reaction time is the time elapsed after spotting the hazard until the driver takes the first reaction to the event like releasing the accelerator pedal or applying the brakes”, explains Prof. Velaga.

The results of the study showed an alarming increase in the driver’s reaction time for all of these scenarios. For the hazardous event of pedestrian crossing, drivers having a simple conversation took 40% longer to react, compared to those who did not use a phone. The scenario where drivers indulged in complex texting caused a whopping 204% increase in the reaction time. The results were similar when handling the other hazardous event of a parked vehicle crossing the road. Here, simple conversation caused a 48% increase in reaction time while complex texting caused a 171% increase. In summary, both types of phone use (talking and texting) proved to be  significant factors in degrading the driving performance.

“The main reason behind the increased reaction time during the use of the phones is the reduced scanning of the roadway ahead, and thus a failure to notice sudden events which leads to a huge increment in the reaction time”, says Prof. Velaga. But what causes these severe differences between texting and calling? “While talking, the drivers can look at the roadway ahead and therefore notice the event earlier than while texting”, he reasons.

The researchers plan to enhance the study further by considering different event scenarios and also the effects of different types of distractions like eating/drinking while driving, or playing music. They would also like to discuss the findings of the study with policy makers and the government.

The findings of the study reiterates the fact that using mobile phones while driving in India can be a hazard for the drivers and pedestrians on the road. While there are rules in India that ban the use of phones while driving, they are often broken. “The findings of the study may serve as an informative reminder to society that phone use during driving is not only harmful to the person who is driving but also to other road users”, signs off Dr. Velaga. 

This article can be found on the IIT Bombay website here.

Editor's note (2 Jan 2018): A previous version of the story was inadvertently published and the vetted version is now published. The error is regretted.