Distracted driving is nothing new. People have fidgeted with music, grabbed things for their kids, done their makeup, shaved — even prepared salads while behind the wheel (all too true).

But cell phones and the near-constant opportunity to stay in touch today through texting and calling is fueling elevated concerns about how distracted we may be when we drive — and the often deadly consequences people suffer when they don’t pay attention to the road.

When drivers drift into other lanes when they text — now we know why. 

Those concerns now have new auto technology in the works to alert drivers when they’re distracted, and in trouble.

A team of researchers from the University of Houston (UH) and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) have just wrapped up a study emphasizing why this is needed, and fast. Lead researcher Ioannis Pavlidis from UH and Robert Wunderlich of TTI wanted to see how different drivers reacted when they were distracted by texting alone versus being absent-minded or upset.

They found that all three scenarios caused drivers’ handling of the wheel to become jittery during normal driving conditions. Interestingly, though, absent-minded and emotionally charged distractions still had drivers going in a fairly straight trajectory, while texting, on the other hand, had drivers drifting into other lanes.

“We knew texting — and physical distractions in general — were bad, and we expected pure emotional or cognitive stressors to be equally bad,” Pavlidis told LifeZette.

She said the team had no idea they would find any sort of protective response by the brain when physical distractions, like a phone, weren’t present.

A volunteer in a distracted driving study by the University of Houston and Texas A&M Transportation Institute sits in a high-fidelity driving simulator (photo: Malcolm Dcosta).

“It did not even cross our minds,” she said. It just goes to show that “texting is bad. Texting while upset is even worse.”

“A likely explanation for this paradox is the function performed by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. The ACC is known to automatically intervene as an error corrector when there is conflict.”

When this happens, Pavlidis added, the ACC counterbalances any strong jitter to the left with an instant equally strong jitter to the right and vice versa. The end effect ends up being fairly straight driving.

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But for the ACC to perform this corrective function, it needs support from the driver’s eye-hand coordination loop. If this loop breaks — which it does when a driver is texting — then ACC fails.

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“The driver’s mind can wander and his or her feelings may boil, but a sixth sense keeps a person safe at least in terms of veering off course,” Pavlidis said. “What makes texting so dangerous is that it wreaks havoc into this sixth sense. Self-driving cars may bypass this and other problems, but the moral of the story is that humans have their own auto systems that work wonders — until they break.”

Pavlidis and Wunderlich think the scientific and manufacturing community can benefit from their team’s study.

The work was funded in part by the Toyota Class Action Settlement Safety Research and Education Program.

“Following up on the results of our science study, we’re looking into the development of a car system to monitor outward driving behaviors, such as steering jitter or lane deviation, as well as the internal state of the driver that causes them,” Pavlidis said. The technology, she said, is perhaps only two years away.

“This system, which I call ‘stressalyzer’ — a play on the word breathalyzer — may serve not only as a ‘black box’ in car accidents, but also as a driver alert and prevention mechanism, since it will continuously sense a driver drifting to distracted mode.”