PhotoAs regulators and legislators fume and fret about talking and texting while driving, an even more insidious threat is emerging – the use of mobile apps by drivers.

How prevalent is the problem? A University of Alabama at Birmingham study finds that more than a third (35%) of college students use mobile phone applications while driving -- even after facing the dangers firsthand.

"The participants seemed to understand that using mobile apps while driving is dangerous, and some have even experienced motor vehicle crashes while using mobile apps, but they continue to do it," said UAB student Lauren McCartney, who conducted the survey.

"The technology is evolving so rapidly that science hasn't caught up to looking at the effects that mobile app usage can have behind the wheel of a car," said McCartney. "But something needs to be done because in psychological terms, Internet use involves substantial cognitive and visual distraction that exceeds talking or texting, making it much more dangerous."

Dangers well-known

The dangers of driving while texting or talking are well known and both state and federal lawmakers have been fast to inveigh against it, but there has so far been little recognition of the apparent threat presented by ever-smarter smartphones.

Thirty-three states ban text messaging while driving. However, no state currently bans the specific use of mobile Internet with the penalty of a primary or secondary offense.

No one questions that mobile apps are habit-forming, as McCartney's survey confirmed. Among survey respondents, one in 10 "often," "almost always" or "always" use mobile apps while driving; more than one-third use them "sometimes."

The survey included 93 UAB students who own a smartphone and use Internet-based applications on it at least four or more times per week; it is not a random sample. Even so, David Schwebel, Ph.D., director of the UAB Youth Safety Lab, is concerned.

Complex task

"Driving a car is an incredibly complex task for humans to complete safely. There are enormous cognitive, perceptual and motor tasks an automobile driver must complete, frequently very quickly and with split-second precision," Schwebel said.

"A driver using his or her smartphone is clearly distracted, both visually and cognitively, and really should not be driving. The fact that 10 percent of college students with smartphones 'often' are using them while driving is astounding -- the fact that 35 percent 'sometimes' do is equally concerning," he said.

The data in McCartney's findings were part of a larger research study at the UAB Youth Safety Lab that examined the effects of mobile application use on pedestrian safety.

McCartney, a student in the Department of Psychology, will present her findings in August to the 119th American Psychological Association (APA) convention in Washington, D.C. Her work was chosen because her survey of this at-risk population is unique.