Updated study shines new light on phone use while driving

Using a cell phone to text — that includes composing, sending, and reading a message or email and surfing the Web — while behind the wheel is ripe with hazard. Research produced at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute continues to support that fact.


Gregory Fitch Gregory Fitch, a senior research associate with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety, has been a leader in distracted driving studies for many years. The institute's research into cell phone use while driving has sparked legislation and much media coverage .

The institute’s 2009 study on cell phones and distracted driving caught the attention of the public at large, legislatures, and even phone companies. Among its starkest findings: Text messaging increased the risk of a safety-critical event, such as a crash or near-crash, by 23 times over a driver who wasn’t distracted.

The “23 times” message echoed loud. Tom Dingus, executive director of the institute, testified about distracted driving before Congress. Since 2009, 39 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving, as did President Barack Obama for all federal employees while driving work-issued cars. The regulators enacted a ban on all hand-held cell phone use by truck and bus drivers behind the wheel.

In 2013, a new institute-spearheaded study reinforces the dangers of distracted driving. Among its findings: engaging in visual-manual cell phone subtasks such as reaching for a phone, dialing, and texting greatly increases driver risk.

“Everyone seems to know texting is wrong. This study confirms this belief by analyzing more data collected from more drivers,” said Gregory Fitch, a safety and human factors senior research associate at the institute’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety and lead author of the study.

The institute and Rockville, Md.-based research firm Westat collected the data. The study, conducted under a separate contract from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found the following:

  • Text messaging, browsing, and dialing resulted in the longest duration of drivers taking their eyes off the road.
  • The act of texting while driving increased the risk of a safety-critical event by two times and resulted in drivers taking their eyes off the road for an average of 23 seconds total.
  • Activities performed when completing a call — reaching for a phone, looking up a contact, and dialing the number — increased risk by three times.
  • Drivers interacted with a hand-held cell phone during half of their hands-free phone calls.

A woman texts in a car In a 2009 study, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute demonstrated the dangers of using a hand-held cell phone while driving. Since then, 39 states and Washington, D.C., have created laws prohibiting such usage.

As with the 2009 study and other research projects conducted by the institute, high-tech camera gear installed inside the cars and trucks of participants captured data. This method, known as a naturalistic driving study, allows researchers to capture participants in their everyday habit of driving, outside of a simulated lab experience.

“We have investigated driver distraction using naturalistic driving data sets, which offer a unique perspective on driver behavior by capturing what drivers do in the seconds leading up to a safety-critical event using video cameras and sensors,” Fitch said. “No other study methodology captures the role of driver, vehicle, and environmental factors on safety-critical event risk. What is clear is that driver distraction is an epidemic.”

A vital difference that sets the most recent study apart: Fitch used actual cell phone records of the participants, allowing his team to pinpoint when a driver may have been talking, texting, or otherwise using a phone right before a crash or near-crash, matching detailed bill usage listings to date-stamped video.

Also of note: There is no direct increased risk from the specific act of talking on a phone, as long as the device is absolutely hands-free. ”Drivers talking on a cell phone kept their eyes forward,” Fitch said. “It’s when you take your eyes off the road that you expose yourself to risk.”

The institute’s efforts to curb texting are only a portion of its research efforts designed to improve road safety. Its researchers are also studying the effects of fatigue on driving, the role connected and automated vehicles will play in the future, and novice teen-driver issues.

“Virginia Tech Transportation Institute is helping shape national and global change in public policies for driver, passenger, and pedestrian safety and is advancing the design of vehicles and infrastructure to improve safety,” Dingus said.

  • Mindy Buchanan-King of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute contributed to this report.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at 540-231-4787.

Videos: Gregory Fitch

    Gregory Fitch

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute researcher Gregory Fitch talks about the details of distracted driving in this series of videos.

A senior research associate with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety, Fitch has been studying human factors related to transportation safety since 2002. His research focuses on field-testing driver assistance systems, driver distraction, driver-optimized interface designs, collision avoidance systems, and driver performance during emergency braking and lane changes. He also is a Hokie alumnus, having graduated with a doctoral degree in 2009 from the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Distracted driving: More than phones

Motorists can take their eyes and attention off the road because of much more than using cell phones or mobile devices. Other known distractors include

  • Reading, including maps
  • Watching a video
  • Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player
  • For newly licensed teen drivers, talking to other passengers

By the numbers

Increased risk of a crash from using a cell phone while driving

Cars, light vehicles (using 2011 data)

  • Reaching/dialing: 3.3
  • Talking/listening: 0.8
  • Text messaging: 2.1

Trucks, heavy vehicles (using 2004-07 data)

  • Reaching for device: 6.7
  • Dialing: 5.9
  • Talking/listening: 1

Related reading

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has made headlines with its work on texting and distracted driving research and prevention.

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