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Is texting as bad as drunken driving?

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Texting behind the wheelWhen drivers text, they might as well be drunk.

At least that’s what others on the road think, a new survey by Insurance.com reveals.

The insurance-comparison website asked 1,000 drivers - all married adults – about their perceptions of the risk from texting while driving versus other kinds of behind-the-wheel behavior. The respondents said texting was most comparable to:

  • DUI: 75 percent
  • Running a stop sign: 15 percent
  • Speeding: 7 percent
  • A parking ticket: 3 percent

Even as science is beginning to confirm what commuters already apparently think -- that the guy in the next lane fiddling with his phone is as dangerous as a 2 a.m. barfly weaving home -- drunken driving and texting couldn’t be treated more differently by law enforcement and insurance companies today.

A DUI may get you jail time and cost $10,000 in fines and hefty DUI insurance hikes. Texting most likely gets you a fine and a small bump in premiums, if that.  (See “Texting tickets and car insurance.”)

 “There is preliminary evidence that [smartphone use] can be four to six times as distracting as alcohol at low levels,” said David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “It requires a significant amount of cognitive capacity.”

“People realize it’s dangerous,” said Lisa Hollister, a trauma nurse who runs Don’t Text and Drive, one of the nation’s oldest anti-texting campaigns. “I don’t think we need to create that awareness. The real question is, how do you get people to stop?”

DUI posed a similar problem

Safety advocates posed the same question about drinking and driving three decades ago. At the time, a beer for the road was culturally acceptable, and DUI fatalities were twice what they are today.

And the challenges faced then sound chillingly like those cited today regarding texting and the use of cellphone applications by drivers: People are in denial about the risk they pose (although they recognize it’s dangerous when other drivers do it); the behavior is addictive, making it extremely hard to change; and, without repercussions, habits are extremely hard to break.

More than half (57 percent) of respondents said they had ridden with a texting driver, but only 38 percent admitted to doing it themselves. (Other surveys reveal that some people claim not to text even though they read on the move and write when stopped, both legally considered texting at the wheel.)

Sixty-five percent of passengers in the Insurance.com survey had asked drivers who were texting to stop; 28 percent said nothing.

“The interesting thing about smartphone use,” Greenfield said, is that 80 to 90 percent of people say it’s dangerous yet 75 percent admit to doing it anyway. “That’s the similar kind of discrepancy that we used to see with alcohol. … It’s called denial.” 

This is your brain on a smartphone

Alcohol, as many know all too well, makes us stupid, dulling the region of the brain responsible for higher decision-making.

Smartphones essentially do the same, albeit in intermittent bursts. When our phone emits its distinctive little ding, why can’t we resist looking?

 Because checking promises the potential of a reward: a shot of dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical that’s released when we see a personal message. Greenfield equated it to a lab monkey repeatedly pressing a lever for the intermittent promise of a treat.

“We like to think we’re beyond animals because we’re bright, but the interesting thing is when you activate the reward circuitry in the brain, you shut down the connections to the frontal lobe of the brain,” Greenfield said. “So what you’re not doing is thinking.”

“Bottom line, digital media is a drug,” he said. Like alcohol, “it has a powerful impact on our neurobiology.”

Numbers vary, but we all agree

In the Insurance.com survey, women viewed texting as a more severe infraction than men did. Eighty-two percent of women equated texting with a DUI; 66 percent of men did.

Older drivers took the dimmest view of texting; 84 percent over the age of 65 said it was equivalent to a DUI, compared with 69 percent of drivers under the age of 35.

Research shows that texting takes a driver’s hands, eyes and brain off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. Distracted driving is to blame for an estimated 5,000 deaths in the United States a year, including an average of 11 teenagers killed per day.

Currently, 45 states outlaw texting behind the wheel. But 31 of those allow the use of hand-held phones, making it difficult to enforce the anti-texting laws, say advocates. To help combat the problem, federal and state governments have begun launching high-visibility enforcement campaigns, one of the very things that helped change the culture of drinking and driving.

Will a texting ticket increase your car insurance bill?

As enforcement measures begin to include the levy of points against driving records, texting tickets can affect insurance costs as well. (See “What you need to know about driver’s license points.”)

If you live in a state that treats a texting ticket as a moving violation that appears on your driving record, the impact on insurance can be similar to that of a minor speeding ticket, says Insurance.com Managing Editor Des Toups.

Data gathered for Insurance.com from multiple ZIP codes in every state show an average rate increase after a minor traffic violation of about 14 percent. By contrast, the average increase after a single DUI is 76 percent.

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