Researchers and Cops Target Texting Drivers

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COLUMBIA - From a man who sees accidents nearly every day comes a new study on texting and driving. 

The research has to do with how distractions impact reaction time.

Tuesday, at the Columbia Police Department Training Facility, firefighter/EMT Chip Lange got behind the wheel and demonstrated his study findings on a driving simulator.

The simulator takes drivers through a virtual course, complete with unexpected turns and road signs. The simulator-experience can best be compared to sitting in a video game, complete with three screens to provide drivers with an experience close to reality. In Lange's study, the 33 participants were asked to attempt texting while navigating the course.

"The bottom line of this research is the fact that our body physically can't keep up with the fact of being distracted. That's a huge issue with this and this is something that's new because before, we thought reflex, we can respond quickly, doesn't really matter. Now, we realize our body just can't keep up because you have the part of us that recognizes what's going on behaviorally, but the part of us biologically trying to respond just isn't quick enough," Lange said.

His inspiration for the study?

"As a firefighter/EMT there's been a couple of times where I've seen actual accidents from texting and driving and also, I've been nearly hit by drivers who were distracted," Lange said. 

He conducted the study in the Spring, while a senior at Westminster College, but is working now to share his results.

Those results show drivers' reaction times when texting. Thirty-three people were studied, including some who are "frequent texters," which meant those who text while driving at least 10 percent of the time "infrequent texters," those who text while driving less than 10 percent of the time, and firefighters/EMTs, because they are trained to do multiple duties at once when driving to an accident. Everyone who tried to text while driving the simulator crashed. But Lange says frequent texters did the best navigating the similated driving test while texting.

He explained that when traveling 50 feet per second, at 34 miles per hour, firefighters on the simulator responded at 2/10 of a second. This means they recognized an object within 10 feet of traveling. Infrequent texters took up to half a second on average, so they recognized an object within 25 ft. 

That distance in reaction time can be the difference between life and death - as when a child darts across the street, Lange said. He explained our bodies simply cannot react fast enough when a distraction is thrown in the path.

Columbia Police Department Traffic Unit's Scott Decker writes tickets for those 21 or under texting and driving, and says he's seen it all. 

"I've seen people's driving habits where they're doing this (texting). One lady, she had both hands on the center of the steering wheel texting while driving, going approximately 50 miles an hour... That's scary. She's not paying attention to the number one thing she should be doing and that's driving," Decker said.  

Lange hopes to share the study when MoDot promotes texting and driving awareness in the Fall, as well as sumbit his research to scientific journals.

The Missouri Department of Transportation said distracted driving accounted for 28 percent of Missouri crashes in 2009. 

"... senseless deaths that don't need to occur. That text can wait," Decker said. 

It is unclear how many distracted driving accident are from texting, because that information is not currently included in injury crash reports.

That will change next year.

Chip Lange Research Paper