By Professor Frederik R. Mottola,
National Institute for Driver Behavior
There are dozens of research studies, each telling the same story: the majority of drivers know it is dangerous to text and drive, but more than half of them still do it. Why?
The problem of texting-related crashes is not limited to drivers. After years of declining traffic crashes in which pedestrians were being killed, in 2009 the trend has reversed directions; each year since, more and more texting pedestrians are being killed. In New York City, pedestrians comprise 51% of all motor vehicle deaths.
Why do drivers and pedestrians believe they can text and manage a traffic situation at the same time? The answer is within their unconscious mind. What people don’t realize is that over years of walking, or driving, there is a learning experience on the unconscious level for how to process information of where one is traveling. Everyone knows that vision is the most important sense for detecting, and for traveling, a safe path, while driving and while walking. Out of all of the disabilities a person might have, the only one that a driver cannot compensate for is loss of sight. And, for a blind person, it takes many months of extensive training to acquire the skills necessary to learn how to walk in a traffic environment and safely navigate a traffic situation. When people walk or drive while texting, they are unknowingly rendering themselves sightless. They lose their ability to use central and fringe vision effectively.
Central vision is a narrow cone of clear vision that is capable of bringing objects sharply into focus to identify details. Central vision is the vision used for reading these words. While driving or walking, central vision is used to search ahead to detect if the path one is going to travel is clear of obstacles. Surrounding the central vision is our peripheral vision, which increases our field of vision to 180 degrees or more. The part of peripheral vision that is closest to central vision is what we refer to as “fringe vision.” Fringe vision is used to monitor our placement within the travel path, whether walking or driving.
Drivers don’t realize how dependent they become on the use of lower fringe vision to monitor the placement of the vehicle in relationship to the lane they are traveling in. You don’t consciously pay attention to where your feet are stepping as you walk along a sidewalk, but when you lose sight of lower fringe vision it becomes difficult to detect when you stray off course
While texting, the head is bent down, which results in a loss of central vision, so one cannot detect anything blocking the path the vehicle is traveling; and, lower fringe vision is lost, which prevents the driver from monitoring the accuracy of the vehicle within the lane. The loss of central and lower fringe vision results in three major crash potentials:
1. Drivers crash into something that blocks their path of travel, such as stopped traffic or a crossing pedestrian. Or, they fail to see stop signs and red traffic lights.
2. Drivers veer off the road to the left into oncoming traffic, or into a ditch, often times taking the wrong steering actions and losing control while attempting to get back into the travel lane.
3. Drivers veer off the road to the right into parked vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists, utility poles, trees, and ditches, resulting in crashes or fatal rollovers.
In London, texting pedestrians stray so often into utility poles that the city has placed padding on many of the poles to reduce injuries to the pedestrians. The major difference between the crashes of texting-pedestrians and texting-drivers is that the pedestrians are usually only hurting themselves. However, in a large percentage of the texting-driver crashes other innocent people are getting killed. And, the problem is only going to get worst before it gets better.
The major reason that more texting drivers will get into crashes as the years go by is because the more experience one gets texting and driving, the more callous they become to the danger they are exposing themselves and others to. Drivers can convince themselves that they have no issue with being able to text and drive. In a 2011 Ad Council survey, 55% of young drivers stated that, “it’s easy to text and pay attention to driving at the same time.” Yet, I am certain that every driver who has the habit of texting every time they drive has been in situations where they found their vehicle had inadvertently drifted outside of the lane markings –– perhaps two or three feet onto the shoulder of the road. However, there was no pedestrian, bicyclist, jogger, utility pole, parked car, or other object there to crash into. The “crash” was in empty space, so it was perceived as a non-event.
Texting and driving is a societal problem. The way I see it is that society views the problem of texting and driving today in a similar manner as how acceptance of drinking and driving was thirty years ago. Crashes then by intoxicated drivers were accepted as merely being an “accident” that happened by chance. Intoxicated drivers would swerve into and out of their travel lane, and often that behavior would be incorporated into comedy shows on television as “entertainment.”
In 1981 the “town drunk,” who had been cited several times for driving under the influence, had drifted his vehicle out of the travel path onto the shoulder of road and crashed into a bicyclist. The bicyclist was a forty-one year old clinical psychologist –– and he was my brother, Dr. William C. Mottola. He died thirteen days later. The punishment for the drunk driver: $150 fine and thirty days in jail –– after all, it was only an “accident.”
How many texting drivers and their innocent victims will need to die before society –– before you –– see this as a serious public epidemic? What can you do? The obvious is don’t text and drive. The more difficult, don’t participate in texts when your friends are texting and driving. Give some true love to your friends while they are alive by letting them know that you will not text while they are driving. Your love for them while they are alive is more rewarding than placing flowers at their roadside memorial. Society is composed of people, and one person at a time can make a difference. You are that person!
Here is an activity for you to do to experience the effect that loss of your central and fringe vision has upon driving. Please feel free to share this blog with others.
About the author: Frederik Mottola, Professor Emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University and Executive Director of the National Institute for Driver Behavior, has, for the past 50 years, researched and developed techniques to help drivers learn good habits for space-management. A scientist, inventor, educator, and author, he has designed successful crash-reducing programs for corporations, municipalities, police, military, emergency vehicle operators, and traffic safety educators on national and international levels.