Much of the attention in the worthwhile efforts of ending distracted driving is aimed squarely at our youngest drivers, and that makes sense, at first glance: After all, teens aged 12-17 send and receive approximately five times more texts per day than the average adult texter. (Also, there are still approximately 28 percent of adults who don’t text at all, according to Pew Research.) But a study released last week out of Wayne State University found something startling about adults and distracted driving: Turns out, millennials texting and driving might be even less dangerous than texting and driving is for older, more experienced drivers.
In the study, 50 participants between the ages of 18 and 59 years old hopped in a simulator and were tasked with engaging in text message conversations with researchers while attempting to “drive.” Researchers then measured the number of times participants underwent “lane excursions,” or in other words, veered over into what would certainly be danger in the real world. You’ve seen these so called lane excursions on the highway, no doubt—they’re real and they’re terrifying, that bit of drift that can happen when a driver takes his or her eyes off the road for a few seconds to answer a text.
Baby Boomers Aren’t Any Better at Texting & Driving
The researchers were interested in determining how age affected these lane excursions, and their results, as explained in the Washington Post, were perhaps surprising:
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.
In other words, just because you are a seasoned driving pro doesn’t mean you’ll be more skilled at fielding the distractions a phone presents. In fact, as the Post explains: “There is something unique to the distraction of texting that makes older and more mature drivers worse at it.”
Why Older Drivers Might be Worse
Researchers don’t know yet exactly why the older drivers did worse at the tests. Possible factors include older drivers taking more and longer glances when reading and composing texts, or older drivers’ inability to manage technological multitasking as well as young people—who do so on a nearly constant basis—can.
The study’s findings surprised its author, who spoke with Post reporter Elahe Izadi: “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.”
Now, we feel this is an appropriate time to remind readers that no one can ever really be good at texting and driving—but this study is an important addendum to the discussion about distracted driving. Its authors say that anti-distracted driving messaging should be expanded to include warnings to older drivers, and we couldn’t agree more: Just because you know what you’re doing behind the wheel doesn’t mean you’re any better at managing the distracting ping of a text message. The bigger point is, distraction behind the wheel isn’t just a teenage problem—it’s a problem for all of us.