SMS Danger (While Driving)

by Rashvinjeet Singh Bedi

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.

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 (2008), one can only wonder how many were sent out while behind the wheel of a vehicle.

United States Laws

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.

Malaysia Statistics

There are no statistics available in Malay­sia on the phenomenon but Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (MIROS) 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% (1318 out of 5672 cases) of fatal accidents and 14% of overall accidents (3674 out of 27035 cases). It is probably higher here compared to Western countries as more Malaysians use their phones and text when driving.

Major Culprit

MIROS 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.

It is believed 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.

Texting is worse than talking. There are cases where even motorcyclists are texting. This is very dangerous because their concentration level is minimal.

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

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 do not have full control of the steering wheel and our concentration is divided between the conversation and the road.

When using the hands-free device, only our concentration is divided. But studies overseas have shown that both scenarios impair our judgement similarly.

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


Last month (October 2009), 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 traveling the length of a football field (about 110m) at 88kph without looking at the road.

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.

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 we are distracted, we might not be able to react in time or we might make a wrong decision.

For example, if the motorcycle comes in front of us suddenly and if we are distracted, we might not be able to stop our car in time.

If we come to a T-junction and are turning right, we have two decisions to make – judging traffic on the near side and the far side. This is called the acceptance gap. If we are distracted, we might underestimate the gap, especially if it is dark or if we are being obstructed.


Driving under influence of alcohol or drugs is the most dangerous distraction because the driver may not be in the right frame of mind. Lethargy is 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. Even fellow passengers could be a form of distraction.

We could have children making noise behind. This could increase the stress and anxiety levels. Drivers could react by speeding and driving recklessly.

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?

The Invincible Feeling

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

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?.

More info on SAFETY here.

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