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Institute's Report Says Texting While Driving Unsafe by Any Means

In the midst of a battle among lawmakers over a bill to ban texting while driving, a new report by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute suggests that voice-to-text technology is no safer than typing out a text message.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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Typing out a text message while driving may be illegal by later this year, but the alternatives that drivers may turn to — including voice-to-text technology — will not be any safer, suggests a new study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The study, released Tuesday, suggests that voice-to-text technology — which transcribes spoken words into written text without typing — hurts driving ability as much as traditional text messaging. The study lands at a time when lawmakers are discussing whether to pass House Bill 63, by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, a statewide ban on sending text messages. Many cities already have bans of their own.

The bill has passed in the House after fierce debate and is now headed to the Senate, which passed similar legislation two years ago. But Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill in 2011, calling it "a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults." Last month he said through a spokesman, “The key to dissuading drivers from texting while driving is information and education, not government micromanagement.”

According to the report, technologies likely to replace traditional text messaging, like speaking into a phone and having words recorded as text, will not protect drivers from being distracted and getting into accidents. 

"Understanding the issue of distracted driving is a constantly evolving process because it seems like every day, new technology comes out," says Christine Yager, an associate transportation researcher at the institute, who is the lead author of the study.

Yager’s research was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and involved 43 participants, who drove cars on a closed course. After driving with no distractions, they repeated the course while doing a variety of activities, including manually entering text messages and using their voices to create text messages with applications like Siri and Vlingo. These applications allow drivers to use a phone without their hands, but they are still distracting, Yager said, adding that even "speaking with another passenger" creates some level of distraction from the task of driving.

“Results indicate that driver reaction times were nearly two times slower than the baseline condition, no matter which texting method was used,” the study explains. “Eye gazes to the forward roadway also significantly decreased.” At the same time, Yager explains, drivers perceived the voice-to-text applications as a safer option, “even though driving performances suffered equally with both methods.”

These issues arose when Craddick’s bill was debated by lawmakers in a committee before getting approval. The proposed texting-while-driving ban includes an exception for activating “a function of the wireless communication device,” which includes voice-to-text technology.

When the bill was debated in February, state Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, pointed to a 2010 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute that used data from several states to show that a ban brought about "a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes." Lavender speculated that attempting to hide texting while driving from police led drivers to be more reckless.

Lawmakers on both sides of the debate over whether to pass a ban have said they want to see more education on the issue of texting while driving. Earlier in April, the Texas Department of Transportation launched a campaign to urge drivers to avoid “distracted driving.”

On Monday, the House passed HB 437, by state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, which would strengthen existing laws prohibiting all use of a cellphone by drivers on the grounds of a public school, and which supporters have said will protect children from distracted driving.

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Transportation Texas Department Of Transportation Tom Craddick