WASHINGTON, December 26, 2014 — If everyone agrees that texting while driving is bad, why do we keep doing it?
According to the National Safety Council, at least 1.3 million accidents, or 23% of all accidents, involve the use of a cell phone. More than 3,000 teenagers a year die from cell phone related accidents, making it the leading cause of death among teenagers. More teenagers die from texting-related accidents than from drunk driving accidents.
Despite these facts, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports that 71% of teens and young adults admit to composing a text while driving, and 78% of teens and young adults admit to reading a text while driving. Moreover, over 50% of adults admit to reading or composing texts while driving, and 42% of those who have been in a texting-related accident say that experience did not change their behavior.
Anecdotally, it is hard to find anyone who says it is safe to text and drive, and most drivers will even admit that talking on the phone can be distracting.
So why do so many people continue to engage in behaviors that are not only negative, but potentially deadly? Why can’t we wait to respond to the text tone or the ringing phone?
New York Times journalist Matt Richtel has studied the phenomena and has come up with some theories on why humans literally are unable to curb the impulse to ignore messages when they come through. Richtel, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for a series on multitasking drivers called “Driven to Distraction,” is the author of a new book, “Deadly Wanderings.” The book examines the tragic – yet ordinary – car crash in Utah in 2006 that killed two scientists on their way to work. The driver of the car, Reggie Shaw, was texting when he drifted across the highway and caused the accident.
According to Richtel, the survival mechanism in humans is one reason humans simply cannot ignore that text tone or ring tone. As Richtel explained to Diane Rehm, that text tone or ring tone is the equivalent of a tap on the shoulder for humans. Imagine, says Richtel, that you are a cave man tending a fire. Suddenly, someone comes up behind you and taps you on the shoulder. Richtel says at that point, basic instincts over ride the thought process in the pre-frontal cortex, and we turn around to assess exactly what is tapping us on the shoulder.
Richtel says the same reaction takes place in the brain when we hear the smart phone tone. We are forced to deal with it, to retrieve the message and find out what is essentially tapping us on the shoulder and to decide whether it is a threat or not.
That focus on the smart phone distracts from the process of driving and forces attention on the message coming from the phone.
Richtel goes on to say that another force at work is what B.F. Skinner called intermittent reinforcement. Because approximately 67% of the texts and phone calls we receive are irrelevant and do not require immediate attention, it actually makes it more likely that we will respond to the sound of the cell phone. We get a psychological jolt, a bit of dopamine, when we check our phones, hoping that this time it will contain one of the exciting bits of information.
Richtel says that like the rats in Skinner’s experiments, humans “keep pushing the buttons, waiting for the good thing.” This is the same theory that keeps gamblers playing slot machines, hoping that the next pull will bring the big rewards.
Public safety advocates hope that tough laws and enforcement combined with attitude shift will over-ride the natural response to use cell phones while driving. The combination of free apps like LifeSaver and impactful public service announcements may help shift attitudes, but advocates believe the real change will come only when there is a real fear of jail time or losing a license.
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