MONDAY, Dec. 21, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Drivers who text-message are putting themselves and others in danger as they switch their attention between two complex tasks, a new study confirms.
Researchers who placed young adults in a virtual driving simulator found that the gap between the driver's car and the car ahead shrank when texting came into the mix, but the driver's reaction times slowed.
The result: Drivers who were texting were six times more likely to be involved in a virtual 'crash' than those who were concentrating just on driving.
Texting seemed to raise the danger factor for drivers more than talking on a cell phone, the researchers noted.
While talking on a cell phone, "drivers apparently attempt to divide attention between a phone conversation and driving, adjusting the processing priority of the two activities, depending on task demands," wrote the research team, led by Frank Drews, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah.
Texting, on the other hand, requires drivers to switch their attention completely to that task, and away from driving, they found, and this made for slower reaction and braking times.
In addition, they found that reading text messages proved more distracting than composing messages.
In the study, reported in the journal Human Factors, Drew and his colleagues had 20 male and female drivers, 19 to 23 years old, engage in either driving or driving while texting in a "high-fidelity [driving] simulator." All of the participants were experienced texters.
The team found that drivers' median reaction time increased by 9 percent while they were on a cell phone, vs. 30 percent while texting, compared with the driving-only condition. At the same time, the "minimum following distance" between themselves and the virtual car ahead shrank.
Numerous U.S. cities have banned texting while driving after accidents linked to the practice began to rise.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has more on cell phone use while driving.