Studies show that the collision risk for drivers who text messages while driving goes up 23 times over those who do not do so as text messaging takes the eyes off the road for too many seconds.

Alice Chong was driving home from work and approaching a toll plaza when her phone rang. Without thinking twice, she reached for her phone which was in her handbag on the seat next to her.

In the blink of an eye, her brand new car had plowed into the back of a van.

The price of that phone call? She was without a car for two months and her vehicle suffered extensive damage to the radiator, body work and engine.

“I only took my eye off the road for a few seconds but that proved to be a very expensive lesson for me,” says Alice (not her real name), who swears never to touch the mobile phone again while driving.

As the experts say, it only takes a second for an accident to happen. There is more concern now that more people seem to be texting while driving, a task labelled as “very distracting” for drivers.

Out of the 73 billion messages Malay­sians sent last year, one can only wonder how many were sent out while behind the wheel of a vehicle.

This subject has come under close scrutiny of late in the United States, where many states have been introducing laws to ban texting while driving. This follows several major accidents linked to texting in the past few months.

Data from the American Transportation Department revealed that 11% of drivers in fatal crashes had been distracted at the time of the accident in 2008, compared with 8% in 2004.

The spike in text messaging and use of mobile phones in recent years is believed to have aggravated the problem although it was unclear how many accidents were due to texting specifically.

Driving hazard: Texting while driving can cause you to lose your concentration and may result in an accident.

There are no statistics available in Malay­sia on the phenomenon but Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (Miros) director-general Prof Dr Ahmad Farhan Mohd Sadullah says that distracted driving contributes to out-of-control driving.

This, in turn, is one of the biggest contributors to accidents.

For collisions in 2007, out-of-control driving contributed to 23% (1,318 out of 5,672 cases) of fatal accidents and 14% of overall accidents (3,674 out of 27,035 cases).

Dr Ahmad believes that mobile phones are one of the biggest distractions.

“Phones are a major culprit even though we have laws prohibiting their use (while driving),” he says.

He believes that road safety has a lot to do with prevailing culture and while the mobile phone has given us a sense of urgency, it has become a distraction.

“When the phone rings, there is a compulsion that we have to pick it up. The mobile phone provides promptness but this is dangerous (when driving),” says Dr Ahmad.

Road Safety Department director-general Datuk Suret Singh believes texting causes a significant number of accidents.

“I don’t think we are any different from other countries.

“It is probably higher here compared to Western countries as more Malaysians use their phones and text when driving,” he says.

Federal traffic police chief Senior Asst Comm (II) Datuk Abdul Aziz Yusof says the police don’t tolerate the use of mobile phones.

“There are people who do that but we don’t compromise on this. Texting is worse than talking. There are cases where even motorcyclists are texting. This is very dangerous because their concentration level is minimal.”

He adds that there is no compilation of statistics on accidents due to mobile phone usage.

“It will be very difficult to prove but we are sure there are cases,” says Abdul Aziz.

Road Transport Department (JPJ) enforcement officer Syed Abdullah Syed Hussein says that it will be difficult to prove that a driver was texting.

It is easier to spot a driver who is holding his mobile phone to his ear and slap him with a summons of RM300 than one who is texting.

Hands-free also distract

Dr Ahmad says studies have shown that using a hands-free device causes as much a distraction as talking on the phone.

“When talking (without hands-free kit), we don’t have full control of the steering wheel and our concentration is divided between the conversation and the road.

Suret: ‘All it takes are two seconds’ loss of concentration to cause life-long suffering.’

“When using the hands-free device, only our concentration is divided.

“But studies overseas have shown that both scenarios impair our judgement similarly,” he says.

So logically, this would mean texting presents more danger than talking, as our eyes are off the road for more seconds, says Dr Ahmad.

Last month, a study by the Virginia Tech Trans­portation Institute (VTTI) in the US found that drivers sending or receiving text messages take their eyes off the road much longer than they do when talking or listening on their mobile phones.

The study found that the collision risk for drivers who sent text messages went up 23 times over those drivers who did not use texting devices.

It also showed that text messaging had the longest duration of eyes off road time (4.6 seconds over a 6-second interval).

The study compared this to a driver travelling the length of a football field (about 110m) at 88kph without looking at the road.

“Talking/listening to a cell phone allowed drivers to maintain eyes on the road and were not associated with an increased safety risk to nearly the same degree,” states the report.

Accidents happen in a snap

It must be reminded that accidents happen in a split second – a vital second in which one needs to make a decision and react, says Dr Ahmad.

“When we are driving, we make a lot of decisions and this includes split-second decisions. We have to factor in the risk behaviour of others.

“If you are distracted, you might not be able to react in time or you might make a wrong decision,” says Dr Ahmad.

He gives an example of a motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic.

“If the motorcycle comes in front of you suddenly and if you are distracted, you might not be able to stop your car in time,” says Dr Ahmad.

He gives another example where one’s judgment might be compromised because of distractions.

“If you come to a T-junction and are turning right, you have two decisions to make – judging traffic on the near side and the far side. This is called the acceptance gap.

“If you are distracted, you might underestimate the gap, especially if it’s dark or if you are being obstructed,” he says.

There are even those who claim that driving and texting is more dangerous than driving under influence (DUI), but Dr Ahmad does not want to commit to this theory.

»When we are driving, we make a lot of decisions and this includes split-second decisions« Prof Dr Ahmad Farhan Mohd Sadullah.

”I can’t say it’s true, but a lot people claim that is the case. When you are drunk, you are totally out of control.

“But that split second whether you are affected by drunkenness or distracted by texting is the same; you will meet with an accident,” says Dr Ahmad.

He believes that driving under influence of alcohol or drugs is the most dangerous distraction because the driver may not be in the right frame of mind.

He also lists lethargy as another major distraction.

Other forms of distractions include smoking, eating and fiddling around with electronic devices such as the radio or GPS.

Distractions outside the vehicle would include billboards, improper road signs and even accidents.

He says that even fellow passengers could be a form of distraction.

“You could have children making noise behind. This could increase the stress and anxiety levels. Drivers could react by speeding and driving recklessly,” says Dr Ahmad.

As for the distraction caused by mobile phones, what can be done to stop drivers from using these devices other than the issuance of summons?

Suret reckons most people drive under a false sense of security that nothing will happen to them.

The invincible feeling

“People have probably used their mobile phones before but nothing bad happened. But using the phone is a strict no-no. You should put it on silent while driving. We have survived thousands of years without mobile phones,” he says.

Dr Ahmad agrees, saying many questions were asked on why there were many accidents in the recently ended Ops Sikap.

(There were 17,338 accidents and 265 fatalities in the operation from Sept 13 to Sept 27.)

“A lot of people blame the enforcement. True, it’s not enough, but we cannot be relying on external enforcement all the time. There are limits to the numbers we can supply. Enforcement from family (or passengers) can help,” he says.

“All it takes are two seconds’ loss of concentration to cause life-long suffering. No amount of money can reverse that. Is it worth the risk?” asks Suret.