Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producers: Nick Greenaway and Hannah Boocock
Most of us have done it at some time or other. And it's as dangerous as it is crazy.
Now, new research has found that texting while driving is far riskier than we ever thought.
Start punching out a conversation on your phone and your chance of having an accident jumps enormously.
You may as well be hurtling down the highway blindfolded.
Yes, we know it's hard to resist a beeping mobile, but this story should make every one of us think twice before we text behind the wheel because a few seconds of distraction is all it takes to shatter lives.
STORY - ALLISON LANGDON: We think it’s harmless – a brief glance down to the phone, texting a few quick words. But in that moment, everything can change.
CHARLIE: Texting is an extremely dangerous activity. I believe it is absolutely one of the most dangerous things people can do behind the wheel right now.
ALLISON LANGDON: On a cold afternoon in country Victoria, Deb Compton clears the weeds from one of our all-too-many roadside memorials.
DEB: Every day I miss her. It’s a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s here that her teenage daughter, Emily, lost her life - not due to speed or alcohol, but a new deadly menace on our roads - texting.
DEB: The guy that was driving, he was texting and coming around the corner - and yeah, lost control and the car flipped and straight into a pole.
ALLISON LANGDON: Your little girl died because someone was texting and driving.
DEB: Yes. Yes. Yeah, he was texting, and yep – and, yeah, lost control. So, you know, take your eyes off the road for one minute and - or one second and it’s - you know it can be all over.
ALLISON LANGDON: Emily died instantly. She was just 13-years-old. Her friend Stephanie McCoy Brassington died at the scene a short time later – she was aged 14. Your life changed that night.
DEB: Oh yeah, definitely, definitely changed. Yeah, it’s never been and it never will be the same again without her.
ALLISON LANGDON: How do you feel about the driver?
DEB: Um - I’m still very angry at him, yeah, but I try not to hold a lot in because I know it’s not good for me.
ALLISON LANGDON: How long do you reckon you took your eyes off the road for?
MARCUS: Around three seconds.
ALLISON LANGDON: All it took was three seconds?
ALLISON LANGDON: Marcus Johnstone was that driver. It was his 22nd birthday - he was sober and driving six friends back to the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool. Spirits were high, and Marcus was being teased about a text message.
MARCUS: There was a text message on the phone and it was shoved in my face - so I took it off the person that shoved it in me face. And then the concentration in the car was on that phone. Everybody wanted it, and I dropped me eyes off the road for about three seconds to delete it. And then the young lady sitting in the front passenger seat screamed corner. I looked up and the car was out of control.
ALLISON LANGDON: It was too late, you couldn’t correct?
MARCUS: I tried to correct and put the car into a full power slide.
ALLISON LANGDON: So you slammed into a telegraph pole.
ALLISON LANGDON: When did you realise just how serious it was?
MARCUS: When people stopped coming out of the car and all the emergency service personnel started surrounding the car.
ALLISON LANGDON: How clearly do you remember that night?
WAYNE: I can remember that night like it happened yesterday. I’ve never, never left it- or it’s never left me.
ALLISON LANGDON: Former Police Sergeant Wayne Oakes was first on the scene. Years as a country cop meant he’d seen a lot of misery on our roads. But this accident - and the cause of it - was different.
WAYNE: Well as we approached from, as I say, around the bend - you’re hit with a scene of complete chaos, complete and utter chaos. There seemed to be people everywhere across the road. Ah, there was a lot of screaming. It was wet, dark, raining. The only light was our headlights and the occasional car coming from the other direction.
ALLISON LANGDON: All because of one silly, stupid act?
WAYNE: Absolutely. If you take the conscious decision to do something like that in the car, as far as I’m concerned you’re either suicidal with your own life or homicidal with your - with your passengers. Because you’d have total disregard for the safety and the welfare of the people in the car with you and other road users.
ALLISON LANGDON: In a legal first, Marcus Johnstone was jailed for culpable driving, with the judge citing texting as the cause. Having spent three and a half years locked up, Marcus is now speaking out because he feels no one has learned his lesson.
ALLISON LANGDON: How many people do you reckon text and drive?
MARCUS: I’d probably say 90% of the population.
ALLISON LANGDON: And they have no idea the possible consequences.
MARCUS: Just naive attitude that it’s not going to happen to them.
ALLISON LANGDON: Texting while driving is now an epidemic. These things have become such an important part of modern life that many drivers will instinctively take their eyes off the road when their phone beeps. But once you see the research coming out of America you’ll think twice about responding the next time your phone goes off in the car.
CHARLIE: So this is one of our videos from the 100 car study.
ALLISON LANGDON: Dr Charlie Klauer is a researcher at Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute. She and her team have had cameras installed in thousands of American cars – the cameras capture everything when the engine is on.
ALLISON LANGDON: Aah.
CHARLIE: That was a child on a trike.
ALLISON LANGDON: Child on a bike. She must have only just missed that child.
CHARLIE: Yes. And then she continues on.
ALLISON LANGDON: And keeps dialling.
CHARLIE: Keeps dialling, yep.
ALLISON LANGDON: How many examples of this type of thing have you seen?
CHARLIE: Hundreds. And that’s why things like texting make safety researchers, like myself, very nervous.
RESEARCHER: It looks like she brakes really hard right here.
ALLISON LANGDON: After an exhaustive study of this in-car vision, Dr Klauer’s team has found nothing takes a driver’s eyes off the road longer than texting.
CHARLIE: It takes people’s eyes off the forward roadway for far too long, and they do not understand how long they are looking away.
ALLISON LANGDON: So two seconds with your eyes off the road...
CHARLIE: Is a lifetime. Two seconds off the roadway is half of a football field, four seconds is an entire football field.
ALLISON LANGDON: So in that short amount of time disaster can strike?
CHARLIE: Easily. Easily. And we see it all the time. Here he’s texting.
ALLISON LANGDON: Dr Klauer has found we’re five times more likely to crash when using our phone, and that number is even higher for young drivers.
CHARLIE: I believe that anything like dialling, texting a cell phone, reaching for objects, reaching for moving objects in the vehicle, or reading - those are the five type – five most dangerous types of things that you can do while you’re driving. And the problem with texting is that really includes both. Multiple button presses, multiple eyes off the forward roadway, those are the types of things that we believe really are the culprit behind higher crash and near-crash rates.
ALLISON LANGDON: I’m a little nervous about what you’re going to make me do. Now, I’m about to discover just how deadly these distractions can be. On this specially designed track, all I’m told is to expect the unexpected.
CHARLIE: So we’re recording your speed and your lane position and how hard you may break or how hard you might swerve.
ALLISON LANGDON: So I’m really nervous because I know something’s about to happen. And that you’re about to do something to me. My first task is to find a song on an iPod. As I glance down, I don’t see the box fall off the truck in front of me, but I do have time to brake before hitting it. Whoop! Over the next hour I’m hit with distraction after distraction.
CHARLIE: And you see that truck, right there. We typically had it go like this. Oooh! Very good!
ALLISON LANGDON: What do you mean it’s excellent? I just hit it.
CHARLIE: This time we’re going to do a texting task. So when I say begin, please type the message without using shortcuts. “Meet me in the lobby at five o’clock.” Begin.
ALLISON LANGDON: It takes me 17 seconds to write the message, and in that time I take my eyes off the road six times. Ooh! Oh! I just hit someone! Oh my gosh.
CHARLIE: That is our inflatable deer. It is perfectly fine that you hit it, but that’s how fast things can happen.
ALLISON LANGDON: That’s how fast. Writing that text was the equivalent of driving blindfolded for 100 metres at 80 kilometres an hour.
CHARLIE: It came out from behind the truck, and if you’d seen it you could’ve swerved or you could’ve reacted. I think that everybody thinks, in their little world, in that one moment, that they’re going to be able to do it, and it’s gonna be okay. But if they do it 999 times correctly and one time they run over a two-year-old on a trike, that will change their life forever.
ALLISON LANGDON: That’s so many lives ruined right there, isn’t it?
CHARLIE: Exactly, and it will happen in a split second.
DEB: She thought she was a princess, so she used to love, you know, doing stuff like that. Dressing up and that when she was younger, like that. So yeah.
ALLISON LANGDON: And this one, she’s got some spunk.
DEB: Oh yeah, definitely.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s been eight years since Emily was killed, and the passage of time has barely eased the pain for her mother, Deb.
DEB: Texting and driving you can lose a life. I’ve lost my little girl, you know, and I can’t get her back. So I just, people out there, just take care, you know? No message or no phone call or no nothing is that important that it can’t wait. Pull over or, you know, wait, call someone back. Text them, you know, when you’re stopped. Yeah, don’t do it while you’re driving.
ALLISON LANGDON: Emily Compton’s mother says she can never forgive you, can you understand that?
MARCUS: Yes I can. I took her daughter away from her.
ALLISON LANGDON: It looks like it’s taken a heavy toll on you.
MARCUS: Took a heavier toll on me two friends and their families.
ALLISON LANGDON: How often do you think back and say, if only?
MARCUS: All the time.
ALLISON LANGDON: Three seconds is all it takes to ruin so many lives. For Deb, there’s no more birthdays, no wedding or grandkids from her only daughter. Just memories of a life cut short because of a deadly distraction.
ALLISON LANGDON: How do you feel looking at the cross there now?
DEB: Um, I know that she’s at peace. Yeah. I know that she’s at peace, so - yeah.
ALLISON LANGDON: Ok?
ALLISON LANGDON: Tough coming back here?
DEB: Yeah, it is. Very tough. Especially, you know, knowing that - you know, she’s - she would have been 22 this year and oh, I reckon we would have been the best of friends.