How technology drives us to distraction

We know that making calls, texting and fiddling with satnavs while in control of a car is risky, and yet we find it hard to resist. Simon Usborne discovers how dangerous it really is

I'm a good driver. I've been doing it for 10 years and I've never been stopped by police (well, twice), I've never been flashed by speed cameras (at least not for a few months) and, touch wood, I've never crashed – unless you count that time that, driving my C-reg Fiesta, I pulled out into the path of a brand new Audi.

Okay, so I tell myself I'm a good driver but sometimes I'm not – and I suspect I've been getting worse recently. A few months ago, I swapped my seven-year-old brick of a mobile for a shiny smartphone that not only makes calls and sends texts but also allows me to check Facebook, take a photo of that sunset over the M40 and cue up a podcast.

I'm ashamed to admit I've done all of these things behind the wheel. I'm not alone. As the arsenal of gadgets at our disposal grows so does the temptation. That can have devastating consequences. Last Christmas Day, Sheffield United footballer Jordan Robertson was driving down the M1 when he reached down to use his MP3 player. He slammed into the car in front, killing a father of five. Last Friday, Robertson, 21, was jailed for two years and eight months.

A study published by Heriot-Watt University suggests that three out of four crashes are caused by distractions. Top of the list was texting, something 40 per cent of people surveyed admitted to doing while driving. Other research has shown the reaction times of drivers fiddling with gadgets are 50 per cent slower than normal – and 30 per cent slower than while driving drunk.

To find out how distracting technology can be, I'm spending a day at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in Berkshire. The glass and steel facility is home to one of the world's most-advanced car simulators. A Honda Civic sits on a vibrating platform and is wired up to projectors that throw a roadscape on to screens front and rear.

Dr Nick Reed, head of "human factors research" at TRL, and his team have programmed a 10-minute drive along a virtual motorway that narrows to a winding dual carriageway. When a red bar flashes I have to flick my lights to test my reaction time. The computers measure lane deviation, while infrared cameras determine how long I spend watching the road. First I complete the drive with no distractions. Then I repeat it five times while operating an array of gadgets. How bad can it be?

Making a phone call

For my first real test I hold my phone to my ear and have a conversation with Leana Weaver, head of trials at TRL. She has a list of questions to tax my brain. "If you see a circle with a square to the left of the circle and a triangle above the circle, is the triangle below the circle?" "Er, no," I guess as I spot a man in a black BMW undertaking me in the slow lane. Straightaway I notice deterioration in my driving but the inquisition also affects my brain. When asked to list animals beginning with "B" I give up after badger. I'm driving with one hand but Reed later tells me it's the effect phone conversations have on the mind that can prove deadly. "Our research shows that handheld and hands-free conversations cause the same level of distraction," he says. With my phone clamped to my ear I spend 15 per cent of the test with my eyes off the road (compared to 7 per cent without distraction) and I swerve more often.

Time spent with eyes off road: 15 per cent

Increase in reaction time: 17 per cent

Factor increase in lane deviation: 1.5

Using a smartphone

Time to whip out my iPhone. As soon as I fire up the Civic's virtual engine I start using the touch screen to perform a series of tasks. I check my work email, my own email and my Facebook account while flitting my eyes between the screen and the road. Then I launch Twitter and as I move to post something on it a people carrier pulls out in front of me. "In a driving sim in Bracknell testing how gadgets impair driving. Nearly killed a family," I tweet shamefully. The problem with touch screens is that you have to look at them because the "buttons" are never in the same place and offer no tactile feedback – it is impossible to touch type. This is reflected in the results. During my distraction-free drive I don't deviate from a straight path by more than 7cm to the left or right. But while I'm using my smartphone that figure more than doubles and I spend getting on for half my time not looking at the road.

Time spent with eyes off road: 40 per cent

Increase in reaction time: 5 per cent

Factor increase in lane deviation: 2.1

Texting

You might have seen the harrowing road safety film produced in August by Gwent Police. It shows a girl texting while driving a group of friends along a busy A-road. She ploughs into an oncoming car and causes a deadly pile up. The low-budget clip became a YouTube sensation. I went into my texting test believing it would pose less of a threat because, unlike with my smartphone, I can operate my old Nokia without looking at it. Weaver dictates a series of texts over the intercom, which I tap in and pretend to send. But while my eyes-on-road figures are better than with the smartphone, there are still occasions when I have to watch the screen. The demands on my brain are distracting enough to lower dramatically the quality of my driving, which becomes clear when I have to slam on the brakes and swerve to avoid a truck that slows in front of me.

Time spent with eyes off road: 30 per cent

Increase in reaction time: 27 per cent

Factor increase in lane deviation: 3.8

Playing with an iPod

For this test I borrow my flatmate's iPod and knock up a playlist of music you might find on a "drive time" compilation. How distracting can Chris Rea and Marvin Gaye be? Pretty distracting, it turns out. I come close to stalling when the noise in my ears masks the sound of the engine and I completely miss one of the red bars designed to measure my reaction times while I look down to skip a track. I nearly crash four times. At the post-test debrief Reed is keen to point out that today's experiments are only reasonably scientific and because, say, using a phone I performed relatively well, it should not be encouraged over another distracting activity. "You were impaired in all tests," he says. Years of campaigning mean few people would get into a car with a drunk driver. But do you challenge cabbies prodding satnavs or friends reading text messages? Reed and his team have convinced at least one bad driver to keep his eyes – and mind – on the road.

Time spent with eyes off road: 35 per cent

Increase in reaction time: 56 per cent

Factor increase in lane deviation: 3.4

Programming satnav

Who hasn't tapped in a destination on the move? Satnavs are a boon but a major distraction. I fiddle with my TomTom a few times during the test and immediately notice that reaching over the dashboard to operate the screen contorts my upper body, affecting my ability to control the steering wheel. I avoid death on the motorway but things get tricky on the figure-of-eight bends, which are designed with a variable radius that requires constant adjustments to steering. When a pair of Mercedes that have been toying with me slow down, I stupidly decide to overtake while tapping in my mum's postcode. I'm all over the lane, within inches of hitting both cars at 60mph. My driving is worst in this test. "We haven't done a full study but I suspect that the satnav's fixed position is why it comes out worst than the smartphone," Dr Reed says.

Time spent with eyes off road: 30 per cent

Increase in reaction time: 27 per cent

Factor increase in lane deviation: 3.8

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