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Study finds that texting at the wheel switches off unconscious safety impulse


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A research study into driver distraction has found that texting while driving is especially dangerous. This is because the brain's natural autopilot system, which usually causes a driver to correct the vehicle when they have steered off course, switches off when reading or writing text messages.

According to the study in the journal Scientific Reports, the study showed that texting behind the wheel is especially hazardous.

Mobile phoneResearchers asked 59 motorists to drive on a simulated road while people tried to distract them from driving. Three types of distraction were used: asking mentally challenging questions, asking emotionally challenging questions, and texting trivial questions and comments.

All of the different distraction strategies caused drivers to lose some control of the steering wheel, with 'jittery' hand movements. However, texting alone resulted in major lane deviation and dangerous driving.

According to the researchers, when drivers are distracted they have an unconscious error correction system which intervenes if they veer off course. Any jittery steering in one direction is automatically followed by jittery steering in the opposite direction. This system stays effective even if the driver is thinking hard about something or feeling highly emotional.

However, this intuitive response switches off during texting so the driver can drift a long way off-course without correcting themselves.

Dr Ioannis Pavlidis, the lead researcher of the study, said his team was "currently looking into the development of a car system to monitor outward driving behaviours, such as steering jitter or lane deviation, as well as the internal state of the owner that causes them." Dr Pavlidis said it may be possible to develop a driver alert and prevention system to alert distracted drivers.

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