April 19, 2018

The Physics of Texting and Driving … and Crashing

By Gabriel Cade, MD, FACEP, FAWM

Isn’t driving fantastic? The wind, the efficiency, the music and/or the silence. I mean, yes, it can get boring, and the discomfort increases exponentially with every additional child thrown into the back, but overall, it is one of the extraordinary things we get to do as humans. Aren’t brains and thumbs great?

These somewhat clumsy-looking digits can finesse 4,000 pounds of screaming fast metal across miles of changing landscape and never-ending construction and school bus stops and surprise deer attacks while our extraordinary human brains calculate complex physics equations while trying to remember the lyrics to a song that was playing in Ingles.

Driving is almost effortless at this point. Automatic door closure. Power steering. Power brakes, automatic transmission. Cruise control. You get in your car, and it takes you where you’re going.

You’ve done it hundreds of times. You have forgotten how dangerous it is. You have forgotten that, when you enter your car, you become an unbelievably powerful force, a powder keg of kinetic energy.

Science break: We live in a universe where energy is neither created nor destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. That’s Einstein’s Law of Conservation of Energy, in case you want to sound pretentious at your next party. The energy when you drive is based on the mass of you and the car and your velocity. KE = ½ mv2. Every increase in speed leads to tremendous growth in the amount of energy that eventually has to go somewhere. We put that energy into our brakes, hopefully, or we strike another object, or car, or person, and transfer all that energy into and through that obstacle.

Those same thumbs now expertly navigate the 5.5-inch screen of your phone. We deftly update our status, text a friend, snap a chat (is that what it’s called?) and crush unsuspecting strangers on Words with Friends. This is also effortless. It just takes a second. If you are like most Americans, you are statistically likely to be somewhat addicted to that feeling, that buzz of connection. We interrupt active conversations to check our phones. We interrupt work to check our phones. We interrupt driving to check our phones.

You see where this is going, right? Don’t text and drive. Don’t text and drive. Does this still need to be said? You’re going 55 mph, which means that you travel almost 100 feet every second. If you look down at your phone for 5 seconds you’ve gone almost 500 feet. Can you imagine how much can go wrong on a highway in that amount of time?

I know you’re capable. I know you’re smart (that’s why I included so much physics in this article). I know that you know you shouldn’t text and drive, but you do it anyway. I’m not worried that something will go wrong with your driving; I’m worried that someone else will make a mistake and you will be unable to protect yourself or your passengers. Distracted driving impairs your own ability, but, more importantly, it impairs your ability to respond to a new obstacle (probably someone else texting and driving).

Everything can wait – you know, like it used to before we had these devices. Turn your phone off. Use driving mode. Put your phone in your glove compartment. Hold your friends and family members accountable, and have them hold you accountable. Arrive alive. Protect your thumbs and brains.


Gabriel Cade, MD, FACEP, FAWM, is an emergency medicine doctor at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine.

To learn more about Blue Ridge Regional Hospital, blueridgehospital.org.
For more information about emergency medicine, visit mission-health.org/emergency.

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