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MIE Research Identifies Dangers of Texting While Driving

According to research in the Human Performance Laboratory of the Mechanical and Engineering Department (MIE), texting while driving makes it 20 times more likely you’ll crash. The research, recently covered in feature articles for the Greenfield Recorder and Hampshire Gazette, shows that most accidents attributed to texting drivers involve crashing into something directly ahead, such as a stopping car or a pedestrian in the roadway. “A two-second glance away from the road is all it takes,” said Donald Fisher, head of both the Human Performance Laboratory and the MIE department.

Data gathered while studying drivers in MIE’s state-of-the-art driving simulator indicate that the average glance away from the roadway by a driver who is text messaging is 2.6 seconds.

The data, part of ongoing driving-while-distracted research at the Human Performance Laboratory, comes at a time when state lawmakers are considering legislation to ban texting while behind the wheel - and perhaps cell phone use in general.

In early March, the state Senate voted with the House to ban text-messaging while driving. The two legislative bodies have also approved legislation that would make texting while driving a primary offense, which means police could stop and cite drivers if they observe the behavior. The Senate's bill on driving differs with the House version. The House measure would ban all cell phone use while driving, except for hands-free units. The Senate bill makes no such ban. The two pieces of legislation will be merged in committee and given to the governor for approval.

“I’m not naïve enough to think that making these activities illegal will change everything,” said Fisher, “but a law would turn us toward creating a culture of safety…And drivers will certainly take it more seriously if it’s a primary offense.”

In 2008, 5,870 people lost their lives and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes that involved at least one form of driver distraction, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Driver distraction" is a catch-all term that includes cell phone use, texting while driving, eating, drinking, and talking with passengers, as well as using in-vehicle technologies and portable electronic devices.

Tracy M. Zafian, the Human Performance Laboratory manager, said UMass Amherst research indicates that distraction is the "main issue" when it comes to unsafe driving.

"Anything that distracts a driver away from the front roadway is a serious issue," said Zafian. (March 2010)