Texting while driving messes with your "sixth sense"

Why is texting more dangerous than other distractions?

News flash: texting while driving is dangerous. While this probably isn't news to anyone, a study from the University of Houston has delved deeper into why this is, and compared it to other distractions like being lost in thought, or engaging in passionate conversation with passengers. Results suggest that an innate "sixth sense" counters mental distractions, but fails while texting.

Participants in the study drove the same simulated stretch of highway four times: once distraction-free, once while distracted by cognitively-challenging questions, once with emotionally-charged questions, and once while texting.

In all three distraction tests, participants were much more jittery with their handling of the wheel than when distraction-free. But in an interesting twist, despite the wobbles, the emotional and cognitive distractions actually resulted in overall straighter driving than the control runs. Texting, on the other hand, led to "significant lane deviations and unsafe driving."

Research co-lead Ioannis Pavlidis, of the University of Houston, suggested that the paradox is likely caused by a function of part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC.

"ACC is known to automatically intervene as an error corrector when there is conflict," Pavlidis explained. "In this case, the conflict comes from the cognitive, emotional and sensorimotor, or texting, stressors. This raises the levels of physiological stress, funneling 'fight or flight' energy to the driver's arms, resulting in jittery handling of the steering wheel."

Under this pressure, the ACC automatically counters any strong pull to either side with an equally strong pull to the opposite site, cancelling out the ill effects.

So why is texting more dangerous than other distractions? According to Pavlidis, this automatic corrective function relies on the driver's hand-eye coordination, which is fine during cognitive distractions, but broken while fumbling for a phone.

"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."

Armed with these results, the researchers are currently looking into developing a car system that monitors driving behavior and can alert drivers if it senses they're becoming distracted, or act as a black box in car accidents - an area of innovation we're already seeing grow with various tech solutions.

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