Distracted Driving: How Bad Are Texting or Cellphones Behind the Wheel?

Are texting or cellphone calls really that dangerous?

ByABC News
April 20, 2011, 9:54 AM

April 21, 2011 — -- There are probably few people who are surprised to hear cellphones and driving don't mix -- but do you believe it's true for you?

Maybe not. Some safety advocates say we are in a national state of denial about the dangers posed by using a cellphone behind the wheel. According to distracted-driving expert David Strayer, Ph.D., a cellphone might as well be a bottle of beer. "What we're seeing in terms of the crash risk when you're texting or talking on the phone is that [it] is comparable to driving when you're drunk at a .08 blood alcohol level," he said.

Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.

Drivers aren't the only problem. Some safety advocates accuse car makers of adding distractions to new cars.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told ABC News, "You also can't drive safely if you're trying to download your Facebook in an automobile. You can't drive safely when you're trying to adjust your GPS. You can't drive safely with all the technology that car companies are now trying to put in automobiles. These technologies, I believe, are a distraction."

How distracting is technology behind the wheel? Take our quiz!

LaHood said he has met with car manufacturers and has told them they have to be part of the solution to distracted driving.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is studying the impact of vehicle cellphone use on driving performance. The study, expected to cost $1.75 million, will examine behaviors of 150 drivers in vehicles equipped with high-tech sensors that will collect data for about a month.

The results will be evaluated to see which type of cellphone interface causes the greatest decrease in driving performance. In addition, the study should shed some light on cognitive distraction, because it will evaluate handheld cellphone use versus hands-free use. The research is expected to be completed by 2012.

Distracted Driving Hits Home

Sontiana Brandts was a typical teenager from Minnesota. She admitted she used to text and drive all the time. She was confident of her multitasking ability. "I would drive with my knees and shoot a text," she said.

But one Saturday morning in January 2007, that confidence cost her.

She was driving her younger brother Andre and texting with a friend at the same time. She was so distracted that she drove right off the road. The van rolled, and Sontiana was thrown out onto the frozen road.

Andre was badly injured but managed to crawl to her side to keep her warm. The memory still brings tears to Sontiana's eyes. He would recover quickly, but she was in a coma for weeks. She woke up to a shocking new reality.

"It's kind of weird," Sontiana said, "because I went to sleep one way, and I woke up a different way."

Watch Sontiana's story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.