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Drivers talk and text themselves into a jam

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Cars traveling southbound on the F.D.R. Drive in New York City during rush hour traffic on a recent afternoon. Drivers who use their cell phones increase traffic congestion because of slower reaction times behind the wheel, according to a 2008 study conducted by the University of Utah. (Photo by Yoree Koh/CNS)

The driver could have been elderly or lost, or both. All were likely reasons to explain why the car in front of Shari LeKander-Mieth, who lives in Westlake Village, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, plodded along a tree-lined residential street at 5 mph where the speed limit was 25 mph. The crawl created a line of cars behind LeKander-Mieth that looked more like a funeral procession than people trying to get to work. But neither reason was correct. Turns out, the driver was talking on his cell phone.

“It used to be that it was some old codger that wouldn’t drive over 50 mph,” says the 64-year-old real estate agent. “But more and more drivers are simply on their cell phone.”

These days it’s not just fender benders and near collisions that have motorists enraged with those who dial and drive. Whether drivers are punching in “LOL” to laugh out loud at a friend’s texted joke or tapping the office number on speed dial, those distracted seconds add up to slower reaction times on the road, fueling traffic tie-ups and, in some cases, bursts of road rage.

Lately, Mark Hetherington, 51, a management consultant who lives in a rural Dallas suburb, has noticed his 90-mile commute into the city has gotten longer. On some days, an accident or construction work is to blame. But other times, Hetherington says, he can make out the outlines of the dawdling driver in front pressing his right hand to his ear, inconspicuously talking on the phone while going 40 mph on a 65 mph two-lane highway. He blames urban texters for his lengthening commute time as well.

“People are not even paying attention when the lights turn green because they’re so busy trying to type out their last couple of words,” says Hetherington, adding that he notices that texting and driving is especially prevalent among younger drivers.

Hetherington estimates his two-hour commute grows by 15 or 20 minutes on such trips.

Researchers in a 2008 study at the University of Utah found that motorists who talk on the phone while driving contribute to highway congestion. A driver who talks on the cell phone tends to drive slower, impeding the flow of traffic, which can add up to 10 percent to a person’s commute time, especially in rush hour traffic, says David Strayer, the psychology professor who led the research team. The study, which monitored drivers’ behaviors through a computer-simulated highway, concluded that drivers who talk on the cell phone are approximately 20 percent more likely not to change lanes, drive an average of 2 mph slower and take 15 to 19 seconds longer to complete the 9.2-mile simulated drive. Impeding the flow of traffic inevitably leads to a bottleneck, in much the same way as a person who pauses at the top of an escalator is unaware of the stream of people piling up behind him.

Though on a small scale, and to an individual driver, these seconds don’t appear to make much difference, when compounded by the millions of other drivers with similar habits, the seconds add up to backed-up traffic. Roughly 80 percent of 1,500 drivers in a 2008 survey sponsored by Nationwide Mutual Insurance reported that they talk on their cell phone while driving, while 18 percent of them admitted to texting. As of June 2008, there were approximately 262 million wireless users in the U.S., according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, an international trade association for the wireless industry.

As a part of Strayer’s study at the University of Utah, doctoral student Ivana Vladisavljevic tracked how the overall flow of traffic was affected when the percentage of cell phone users on the highway increased, adjusting the number of users from zero to 25 percent.

“We saw an increase in delays for all cars in a system, and the delays increased as the percentage of drivers on cell phones increased,” said Vladisavljevic in a University of Utah press release.

The delay is attributed to driver distraction. While changing the radio station and calming a fight between the kids in the backseat are distractions to be reckoned with, using one’s cell phone may top the list. In a separate 2005 study, Strayer and his colleagues established that drivers talking on cell phones are as impaired as drivers with the 0.08 percent blood alcohol level that defines drunk driving in most states. The difference in degree of distraction caused by cell phone use compared with other activities is attributable to the greater volume of people who use cell phones and the fact that the distraction lasts longer than a second or two. In an age of wireless technology, people feel an increased pressure to be available at all times, and that includes while they’re on the road.

Sarah Berkowitz, a horse trainer in Media, Pa., says she has become so deft at text messaging while driving, she can type without looking down at her BlackBerry. The 25-year-old trainer held a conversation that lasted for more than 100 text messages during a 20-hour road trip to Florida last winter. But the road won out in the end, admits Berkowitz, who said she eventually put the conversation on hold when she noticed the journey south was taking longer than expected.

The hidden costs that accompany traffic congestion, including increased pollution and idle time on the road raises the question of whether drivers are really making the most of the miles before them. “They all start to slowly make the overall quality of life a little lower,” says Strayer.

Citing public safety concerns, as of this April, six states now prohibit handheld cell phone use while driving—California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Utah and Washington. Ten states and the District of Columbia also specifically ban text messaging, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Cities like Chicago and Detroit are jumping on the banning bandwagon as well. Philadelphia was the most recent city to outlaw using handheld cell phones while driving, in mid-April.

Cell-phone-using drivers are changing the ways of traffic culture too, adding yet another reason for drivers to honk and flash their headlights at offenders. Talking on cell phones was the No. 1 road-rage-inducing behavior, according to a 2008 AutoVantage road rage survey.

Hetherington, the Texas consultant, doesn’t feel the need to add to the growing cacophony of horn honking during rush hour in downtown Dallas, but he says he has seen anger boil over in true cowboy style. He recalled an incident on the Central Expressway, a major freeway in Dallas, in which he saw a driver of a pickup truck that was two cars in front of him roll down his window, point a gun and shoot out the back window of another car that just cut him off. The offending driver was on her cell phone.

“It was obvious he wasn’t aiming at her. He was just trying to make her aware that people were upset,” says Hetherington. “I’m sorry, but if somebody shoots out my back window, I’m going to think a little bit more about why someone is shooting at me.”

E-mail: yak2106@columbia.edu