Which affects reaction time more: texting, talking or having a few drinks?
The answer may surprise you.
Driving Drunk is Dumb
We all know how terrible it is to drink and drive. In the past decade drinking and driving has accounted for 2000 deaths, 50,000 injuries and over $3 billion dollars in Ontario alone. Drinking and driving is stupid and reckless. We meet with countless people whose lives are forever impacted based on a really really dumb decision made in an instant. Nobody thinks it will happen to them, but it does, and you can never undo the damage.
Drinking and driving has appropriately been condemned by society, the legislature and the courts. Penalties are stiff, ranging from an immediate roadside licence suspension of 3 to 30 days if you test over Ontario’s 0.05mg/mL “warn range” to a one-year suspension followed by mandatory alcohol education and treatment programs and driving with a breath testing Ignition Interlock device in your vehicle for an additional year afterwards if you test over Canada’s Criminal Code limit of 0.08mg/mL.
Novice drivers under the age of 21 or drivers who have not obtained their full “G” or “M” licences will receive an immediate roadside suspension of 24 hours, a fine of $60 – $500 and a further driving suspension of 30 days when convicted, and must restart the Graduated Licensing System (i.e. back to the start of a “G1” or “M1”).
Criminal drinking and driving convictions impact your ability to travel to many countries, including the United States, for years or decades.
The costs to an individual convicted of impaired driving are immense – often more than $30,000 in legal fees, higher insurance, fines and mandatory vehicle modifications – and everything mentioned above is if there is no accident and nobody has been injured.
Many would agree the penalties are not stiff enough, especially for repeat offenders.
Driving Distracted is Dumb
What about texting or talking while driving? Talking on a cell phone without using a hands-free device or texting is now illegal in Ontario. You may receive a $110 fine if you are watching an “entertainment device” or you may be fined $155 if you are caught using a cell phone or other device capable of texting with your hands under sections 78 and 78.1 of the Highway Traffic Act.
How much does texting or talking while driving actually impact your driving?
Turns out a whole lot.
In a recent study Australian and Spanish scientists measured the reaction times of individuals driving on a test road while sober, after a few drinks, and while distracted through a cell phone conversation or while texting. Blood Alcohol Concentration (or “BAC”) levels were tested to allow the researchers to compare the reaction times at varying levels of intoxication with cell phone distractions while sober.
Participants were required to drive in the left hand lane of a test track at speeds between 60km/h and 80km/h. They were required to break when a truck appeared on the road.
The results? Having a basic, non-confrontational handsfree conversation over a cell phone resulted in an impairment in reaction times comparable to those with BAC levels of 0.04mg/mL – just under the 0.05mg/mL Ontario limit.
However, when analytical thinking was required during the phone call, the reaction time slowed and was comparable to those with BAC levels of between 0.07mg/mL and 0.10mg/mL. As an example, scientists would ask participants to list their friends’ names that began with a vowel during the test.
When drivers sent or received a basic text message during the test, their reaction times were comparable to when they had BAC levels of 0.10mg/mL or higher.
What does this mean? Unfortunately BAC levels are grossly misunderstood by the public. Many individuals have no idea when they will test above the legal limit in Ontario. At these levels, texting or having a complex conversation while driving means you will have a worse reaction time as an average 180lbs male who drinks a six pack in three hours, or an average 135lbs female who drinks four glasses of wine in three hours.
BAC levels are impossible to accurately predict and vary with many factors, including sex, age, weight, body fat percentage, blood type, current levels of stress or tiredness, recent food or non-alcoholic drink intake, legal or illegal drugs in your system, liver health, and many others. There are online tests to predict average BAC levels, but remember these tests do not account for most of these variables.
Another recent study found that sending or receiving a text caused reaction times to double and people were much more likely to cause an accident.
In this study 42 participants aged 16 – 54 were asked to drive on a closed course at 50km/h. There were no hills, pedestrians or other vehicles on the course and the lanes were very wide. Participants were asked to brake when they saw a yellow flashing light on the course.
- Drivers not texting take 1 – 2 seconds to respond to a danger;
- Texting drivers take 3 – 4 seconds to respond to a danger;
- Texting drivers were unable to maintain their speed or stay in their lane;
- Texting drivers hit many safety barrels during the study, despite the wide lanes;
- Drivers’ reaction times were equally slow if they sent or received a text; and
- Texting drivers were eleven times more likely to completely miss a danger and fail to brake at all.
Is Three Extra Seconds a Big Deal?
At average highway speeds you will travel the entire length of a football field before you are even aware there is a danger ahead in three seconds. If you are travelling at 60km/h you will travel 50m, 164 feet, or nearly 55 yards. This is the length of almost four school buses or 10 average sized cars lined up bumper-to-bumper.
Obviously when you are drunk your reaction time is continuously impaired and while you are texting the impairment is temporary. But we can all think of more than a few times where we did not have an extra football field worth of room to react to a situation on the road. Kids run across streets, cars brake for squirrels; life happens. And death or serious injury may happen if you aren’t doing your job as a driver – keeping your eyes on the road.
Bottom line? We need to get tougher on the penalties for distracted drivers. If you really need to send that text, arrive alive and take a taxi.
Open Letter from the Logan Family
If the above did not convince you, listen to the Logan family, who recently lost their seventeen-year-old daughter and sister D.J. on her first day as a senior in high school:
October 23, 2012
Seven Weeks ago today our daughter died in a tragic car accident, with the investigation of the accident now complete, you can imagine the details about our daughter’s untimely death are devastating to our family, her friends and to those that knew D.J. Her error in judgment as a teenager in this brief moment in time, was paid for with the highest price ever…her LIFE. We would much rather be grounding her for this mistake than never hearing her laughter fill the house again.
Cell phones are a distraction for many while driving. As parents we need to educate and live by example by limiting our phone use while in the car. Our beautiful D.J. was a good kid, with good grades, great friends, a perfect driving record and loved life. She made a mistake like all teenagers do in the process of growing up. Except this time there is no growing up. We can only pray that others can learn from her. As the days keep passing, her “2013” graduating class, Byron students, and surrounding supportive communities please remember D.J.’s life changing lesson…Don’t Text and Drive.
We cannot Thank everyone enough for the unbelievable support that our family has received through this extremely difficult time.
Matt, Megan, Pierce, Chanelle and Javin Logan