More than one-third of college students drive while using mobile apps

College students recognize that driving while using mobile apps is unsafe, yet a new survey shows nearly 4 in 10 still surf the Web behind the wheel.

A University of Alabama at Birmingham survey of college students reveals that 35 percent use mobile phone applications while driving — even after facing the dangers firsthand.

Lauren McCartney. Download.

“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.

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.

“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,” says 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.”

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.

“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,” says Schwebel. “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.”

Thirty-three states ban text messaging while driving; zero states ban the specific use of mobile Internet with the penalty of a primary or secondary offense.

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.