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More experienced drivers are actually worse at texting and driving, study shows

Texting and driving can be a lethal combination, and many campaigns have paid special attention to newer drivers who may be tempted to send messages while behind the wheel. But a new study from Wayne State University researchers shows that texting and driving can be even more dangerous for older and experienced drivers.

“It surprised us because the general sense was, all things being equal, more mature drivers are generally better at managing distractions than less seasoned drivers,” said Randall Commissaris, Wayne State University associate professor and study author. “We thought [younger drivers] would not be better, they’d probably be worse. But certainly that was not the case.”

For the study, which will be published in January’s issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, a group of 50 people between 18 and 59 years old took driving simulators out for a spin. Researchers then sent them text messages, asking them simple questions like what was their favorite color. The group was divided by their texting prowess.

Half of the highly-skilled texters — people who said they texted a lot, could text one-handed and owned smartphones — began veering into other lanes when reading or sending texts. But the older, prolific texters did especially bad: all of the 45- to 59-year-olds and 80 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds veered into other lanes. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds and about 25 percent of 18- to 24- year-olds began crossing lanes while texting.

So, no, just because you’re a seasoned driver who can handle multiple road distractions —  like aggressive motorists around you and a passenger riding with you — it doesn’t mean you’re a pro at safely texting and driving. There is something unique to the distraction of texting that makes older and more mature drivers worse at it.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly why this age difference exists, and it’s a question they’re exploring now. Perhaps older drivers take more and longer glances at their phones when composing and reading messages, something shown in preliminary studies, Commissaris said. Or maybe older drivers can’t manage technological multitasking in the same way as young people who’ve grown up with phones as children. It could be a combination of those factors and others, Commissaris said.

Distraction behind the wheel is a major public health concern. In 2012, 3,328 people died and 421,000 people were injured in car crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevetion. One in three adults in the U.S. texted recently while driving, a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found.

There are valid reasons why so much attention has been paid to young people texting behind the wheel. As a group, younger adults text way more than older ones, per the Pew Research Center. And younger drivers are much  more likely to report that they were texting during a crash or near-crash, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But the Wayne State study shows that older drivers shouldn’t be ignored when developing cautionary texting-and-driving messages. Rather than focusing exclusively on young drivers, the audience should be widened to include experienced drivers who may feel overly-confident about their driving skills, Commissaris said.

“All age groups shouldn’t text and drive,” Commissaris  said. “Even the best of our drivers had a chance of getting in the wrong lane and risking a crash, and that’s not a risk anyone should be taking.”