Is Texting While Driving More Dangerous than Drunk Driving?

Although the dangers of driving while under the influence of alcohol are well known, drunk driving is still responsible for about 10,000 traffic fatalities per year in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control, alcohol is a factor in one out of three motor vehicle deaths. Though it wasn’t always the case, drunk driving is now appropriately seen as an extremely irresponsible and dangerous act.

Now, some experts are saying that distracted driving may be even riskier than drunk driving. Specifically, many wonder if texting while driving is even more dangerous than drunk driving. It’s important to understand the dangers of drunk driving and distracted driving so that we can take steps as a society to make the roads safer and reduce the number of auto accidents.

The Dangers of Drunk Driving

By now, everybody should know that drinking alcohol and getting behind the wheel of a car is incredibly dangerous. A driver with a blood alcohol concentration of .10 is seven times more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash than someone who has had no alcoholic beverages. If a person’s blood alcohol concentration is .15, the risk of a fatal accident is 25 times more likely. In other words, the more a person drinks, the more likely it is that they will have an accident.

The Dangers of Distracted Driving

Distracted driving refers to any activity that takes the driver’s attention away from the road. Browsing through the radio stations, talking to a passenger, eating, putting on makeup—these are all examples of distracted driving.

In 2015, almost 3,500 people were killed as a result of distracted driving. On top of that, 391,000 people were injured because of distracted driving. The total number of traffic fatalities in 2015 was 35,092 which was a 7.2% increase from the year before, the largest increase in 50 years. Accidents, injuries, and fatalities at this rate have led some to describe distracted driving as an epidemic.

How Dangerous is Texting While Driving Compared to Drunk Driving?

Of all the various ways a person can drive distracted, texting while driving may be the most dangerous. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) puts it, “sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”

So, just how risky is texting while driving compared to drunk driving? Check out two important trends below.

1. Drunk driving causes more fatalities, but distracted driving causes more injuries.

In 2018, 2,841 people died as a result of distracted driving, and 400,000 were injured. That same year, 10,511 people died because of drunk driving, but as of 2020 about 290,000 are injured in such accidents every year.

Additionally, the number of drunk driving injuries decreases every year, while the number of distracted driving injuries increases.

2. Texting while driving can delay reaction times even more than drunk driving.

One of the reasons both texting while driving and drunk driving are so dangerous is because they slow a driver’s reaction time, or the time it takes for them to react to a stimulus in or outside the car - such as braking for a red light. Readers might be surprised by how much reaction times can be impacted by texting while driving compared to drunk driving.

To see how dangerous texting while driving is compared to drunk driving, Car and Driver Magazine outfitted a Honda Pilot with a red light that alerted drivers when they needed to brake. They tested how long it would take to hit the brakes when sober, when legally impaired at a blood alcohol concentration level of .08, when reading an email, and when sending a text.

Below, we’ve summarized the results for two male test subjects driving at 35 miles per hour and then at 70 miles per hour.

Subject 1 at 35 MPH

  • Baseline reaction time: 0.45 seconds
  • Reaction time when sending a text: 0.52 seconds
  • Extra distance traveled when sending a text: 4 feet
  • Reaction time when inebriated: 0.46 seconds
  • Extra distance traveled when inebriated: 1 foot

As you can see, both reaction time and extra distance traveled were reduced (in other words, better) when the subject was impaired by alcohol vs. when he tried to send a text. However, the effects of texting vs. alcohol were more similar at higher speeds:

Subject 1 at 70 MPH

  • Baseline reaction time: 0.39 seconds
  • Reaction time when sending a text: 0.48 seconds
  • Extra distance traveled when sending a text: 9 feet
  • Reaction time when inebriated: 0.50 seconds
  • Extra distance traveled when inebriated: 11 feet

The results were more striking for the second test subject.

Subject 2 at 35 MPH

  • Baseline reaction time: 0.57 seconds
  • Reaction time when sending a text: 1.36 seconds
  • Extra distance traveled when sending a text: 41 feet
  • Reaction time when inebriated: 0.64 seconds
  • Extra distance traveled when inebriated: 7 feet

One concerning result for test subject 2 is that he traveled a full 41 additional feet and went at least 4 seconds without looking at the road while attempting to send a text. At 70 miles per hour, it only gets worse:

Subject 2 at 70 MPH

  • Baseline reaction time: 0.56 seconds
  • Reaction time when sending a text: 1.24 seconds
  • Extra distance traveled when sending a text: 70 feet
  • Reaction time when inebriated: 0.60 seconds
  • Extra distance traveled when inebriated: 4 feet

For subject 2 - unlike subject 1 - it’s clear that texting while driving was much more impairing than alcohol when driving at a higher speed.

Note that test subject 2 was 37 years old while test subject 1 was 22, suggesting that older age may increase the risks of both distracted driving and drunk driving. And though this is just one experiment with a very limited sample size, it’s clear that texting while driving is at least as dangerous as drunk driving.

What is Being Done About Distracted Driving?  

To address the dangers associated with distracted driving, especially talking on a cell phone or texting while driving, many states are introducing new laws that punish the behavior.

In addition to these laws, there are many groups advocating to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, especially since younger people are most likely to text while driving. Many tech companies are also creating apps designed to curtail distracted driving.

Contact an Experienced Auto Accident Attorney

If you’ve been involved in an accident with a drunk or distracted driver, don’t hesitate to contact the experienced auto accident attorneys at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield. With over 70 collective years of legal and trial experience, our attorneys can answer your questions during a free consultation or represent your case, if necessary.


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