Why is it so hard to stop texting and driving?

Written by
Photo via Flickr/ cc/ viviandnguyen_

We all do it, or at least have done it. We’re driving down the road, hear a ‘ping’ and instantly reach down to pull out our phone to see who in the world sent us a text message. But can we stop?

Emerging science behind texting and driving is showing us that reactions like this aren’t just an issue of lack of self-control, but a distraction that’s extremely difficult to ignore.

“I call the smart phone a sort of miniature slot machine,” says David Greenfield, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine said on KCRW’s To the Point. “Because every time a little beep, or blip, or indication that comes in that you got a text or email or an update or a tweet, there’s a part of your brain that wants to answer that, because every time you get one the potential that the piece of information might be desirable or pleasurable elevates a sense of dopamine in the brain and that elevation of dopamine experiences a sense of pleasure.”

But it’s not just the dopamine that drives distraction. “The thing about the smartphone and why the estimates are seven to fifteen times greater of distractibility than other functions is that it requires sustained activity. You’re not just picking it up and tapping it once. You’re tapping in a message that could take 15 seconds or more,” says Greenfield. “You’re attentional capacity is impaired significantly. In some cases, greater than you’d have if you were drinking and driving.”

Surveys show 96 percent of drivers acknowledge that texting and driving is bad, but 30 percent admit to still doing it. There are many different ideas on how to curb behavior. In Vermont, a law is now in effect that forces drivers to use hands-free portable devices while driving, and allows police to ticket if they catch a driver with a phone in his or her hand. New Hampshire will apply similar rules beginning next summer and14 states altogether have laws banning the use of handheld devices.With at least nine deaths occurring each day over texting and driving and over 3,000 teens being killed annually by distracted driving, some activists feel that laws may not be enough.

Cathy Davidson, Director of The Futures Initiative at CUNY Graduate Center and Author of “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” says that while regulation is necessary, better technology and more importantly, improving education and basic communication.

“The most important thing is thinking about the different ways we interact with the world now where we are constantly relying on people who aren’t even experts to give us advice,” says Davidson. “I like to say if we teachers can be replaced by computer screens we should be. And by that I mean we shouldn’t be replaced by computer screens. We should be doing something better, more interactive, more compelling, more addictive than the experience of sitting there listening to a boring lecture or video.”

What makes curbing the way we interact even more difficult is that “addictive” quality Davidson mentions, and evidence of the developing young brain shows more susceptibility to the ‘pinging’ noise. Nonetheless, advocacy groups as well as corporations, are using more direct ways to caution young people about the ramifications of texting and driving.

Public Service Announcements from major companies such as Volkswagen and AT&T have gone viral. Furthermore, a website has been created and major celebrities have endorsed the site, www.itcanwait.com. The site offers ways for people to get involved with the anti-texting movement including easy ways to create your own meme. Highlighting the site, visitors can take a pledge to never text and drive. Currently, nearly 5.5 million pledges have been made.

No matter how the issue is addressed, many agree that we haven’t figured out how to avoid the downfalls of cellphone technology and automobiles.

“We’re in a very, very, very early stage in this whole smartphone-internet age,” says Davidson. “The real problem is when we are in an old world and a new world at the same time. The world of ‘don’t drink while driving,’ but is it yet a world that says ‘don’t text while driving.'”

Listen to To the Point’s How Technology Distraction Kills