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01.12.2015 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2015 Open Access

BMC Public Health 1/2015

Texting at the light and other forms of device distraction behind the wheel

BMC Public Health > Ausgabe 1/2015
James J. Bernstein, Joseph Bernstein
Wichtige Hinweise

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

Both of the authors designed the study; collected, analyzed and interpreted the data; and drafted and revised the manuscript. Both authors have read and approved the final manuscript.

Authors’ information

James Bernstein is a senior at Haverford High School and a newly licensed driver. This study was motivated by observations he made while learning to drive. Joseph Bernstein is Clinical Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania.



Cell phones are a well-known source of distraction for drivers, and owing to the proliferation of text messaging services, web browsers and interactive apps, modern devices provide ever-increasing temptation for drivers to take their eyes off the road. Although it is probably obvious that drivers’ manual engagement of a device while their vehicles are in motion is potentially dangerous, it may not be clear that such engagement when the vehicle is at rest (an activity broadly labeled “texting at the light”) can also impose risks. For one thing, a distracted driver at rest may fail to respond quickly to sudden changes in road conditions, such as an ambulance passing through. In addition, texting at the light may decrease so-called “situational awareness” and lead to driving errors even after the device is put down. To our knowledge, the direct comparison of the rate of device usage by drivers at rest with the rate of device usage by drivers in motion has not been reported.


We collected information on 2000 passenger vehicles by roadside observation. For the first group of 1000 passenger vehicles stopped at a traffic light, device usage (“texting”, “talking”, “none”), gender of the driver, vehicle type, seatbelt usage and presence of front seat passengers were recorded. For a second set of 1000 vehicles in motion, device usage alone was noted. Statistical significance for differences in rates was assessed with the chi-square test.


We found that 3 % of drivers in motion were texting and 5 % were talking. Among the stopped drivers, 14.5 % were texting and 6.3 % were talking. In the stopped-vehicle set, gender and vehicle type were not associated with significant differences in device usage, but having a front seat passenger and using seatbelts were.


Device usage is markedly higher among drivers temporarily at rest compared with those in motion, and the presence of a front seat passenger, who may help alleviate boredom or reprimand bad behavior, is associated with lower device usage rates among vehicles stopped at a light. These observations may help identify suitable steps to decrease distracted driving and thereby minimize traffic trauma.
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