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TUESDAY, Dec. 30, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- The risky mix of texting and driving may be more problematic for middle-aged drivers than it is for younger drivers, according to new research.
However, that doesn't mean texting and driving is OK for any age group, the study authors stressed.
"First and foremost we don't want to misrepresent this in any way that promotes texting and driving among young drivers," said study co-author Randall Commissaris, an associate professor in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at Wayne State University in Detroit. "But today more and more older people are texting, not just teens and those in their 20s and 30s. And a lot of these older people are doing it while driving," he added.
"So we systematically road-tested a range of drivers, from age 18 to 59," Commissaris explained. "And we found that while about 25 percent of the youngest drivers would go into an oncoming lane or onto the shoulder while texting, it was virtually 100 percent among the oldest drivers."
Results of the study are published in the January issue of Accident Analysis and Prevention.
To explore how texting affected drivers of different ages, the researchers ran 50 men and women through a series of computerized road tests.
Texting ability varied, according to the study. Seven described their texting ability as limited -- meaning they had to search for the keys and typed with one finger. Sixteen said their texting skills were good, though they described using two hands to text. Twenty-seven volunteers were in the "skilled" texter category, meaning they're able to handle sending texts with one hand, according to the study.
The researchers divided the volunteers into four age categories: 18 to 24; 25 to 34; 35 to 44; and 45 to 59. To test their driving skills, they were asked to "drive" a four-door fully outfitted driving simulator that created a virtual, but realistic, roadway experience. The driving simulator mimicked driving on a two-lane country road. There were no stop signs or stop lights. And, there were no oncoming cars in the opposite lane, the study reported.
Each volunteer drove for a half-hour test session. During that test, they were asked to drive several minutes at roughly 50 to 60 miles per hour while engaging in brief text conversations conducted with one hand.
Overall, two-thirds of drivers committed "lane excursions," meaning they crossed into another lane with oncoming traffic or on to a shoulder, according to the study. Among skilled texters, about half of the volunteers committed lane excursions.
But digging deeper, investigators found that nearly all of those in the 45 to 59 group made such driving mistakes.
This compared with about one-quarter of those between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the study. About 40 percent of those 25 to 34, and 80 percent of drivers between 35 and 44 made lane excursions, suggesting that the ability to handle the texting distraction got continually worse with age.
The researchers found no differences in driving and texting ability between genders.
Exactly why older drivers fared worse remains unclear, although the research team suggested that older drivers may simply spend more time looking at their phones, or may be generally less able to multitask.
"The findings were very surprising to us," said Commissaris, "because most of the literature on distracted driving suggests that mature drivers are better able to manage distractions. Whether it's being involved in a cellphone conversation, talking with passengers, or checking maps."
But, he added, "this study suggests that we really need to make sure that older drivers don't take the attitude that they're somehow better able to manage this particular distraction. They're not."
Commissaris framed the findings as a good basis for considering a New Year's resolution: "a personal ban on texting and driving. Because the reality is that the text you're sending isn't all that important, particularly if that text ends up as part of an auto crash."
Kara Macek, director of communications for the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) in Washington, D.C., agreed. "Texting while driving is always a bad idea, whether you're 60 or 16," she said.
"A lot of the current anti-texting-while-driving messaging is aimed at teens and young drivers," she said. "That's still an important segment to target, but this study reinforces the need to reach out to older drivers, too. It's alarming to find that their driving skills may be impacted more severely, particularly because they are just as guilty of the behavior as their younger counterparts."
Macek stressed the GHSA's message for all drivers: "put your phone away and focus on the road."
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SOURCES: Randall L. Commissaris, Ph.D., associate professor, department of pharmaceutical sciences, Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Wayne State University, Detroit; Kara Macek, director of communications and spokesperson, Governors Highway Safety Association, Washington, D.C.; January 2015, Accident Analysis and Prevention