Are We Addicted to Texting and Driving?

Temptation meets opportunity when a cell phone is ringing or beeping with a text while we are driving. Our society puts a premium value on multitasking and being available 24/7. We want to answer, we often feel the need to answer. We are conflicted and on occasion give in and answer the text or call. We justify our actions by telling ourselves that we need to stay connected. It is expected of us. Our boss, colleagues, family and friends certainly would be disappointed if we cannot get back to them right away.

A couple of questions that we can all ask ourselves are:

  • Can we really give our “undivided” attention to driving when engaging in texting and cellphone calls?
  • Is it worth it to put ourselves, our passengers, other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians at risk so that we can fulfill our need to stay connected?

This article refers to attention studies presented in the 2014 book, “A Deadly Wandering” by Matt Richtel. In the book, a psychology professor and several neuroscientists contribute results from their research to help us understand how difficult it is to focus on driving while engaging in conversations utilizing technology. Work from Doctor David Strayer, one of the United States most prominent attention science researchers, and a Princeton University attention research study are mentioned in this article.

Doctor David Strayer’s research shows that we cannot effectively concentrate on driving while we are multitasking and talking on a telephone or texting. Our brains are wired to prioritize. Our brain will automatically select the most immediate task even though the immediate task, a phone or text conversation, is not nearly as important as the potential “life and death” situation happening on the road.

Our brains identify an urgency and a significance in the phone or texting conversation. We feel that we may miss out on short term information that may or may not be important several hours later.

Findings from research done at Princeton University collaborate with Dr. Strayer’s results and can be summarized as follows:

When the brain is asked to consider two different sources of information, it appears to present a competition in the brain. Our brains will gravitate toward what we see as the most pertinent information and there will be a decline in neurological resources dedicated to what we see as less important information.

Consider This: As we are driving along the highway or a familiar road, it seems to be mundane and easily manageable. We may have been on the road 1000 times before without incident. We feel that there is nothing cognitively challenging about this drive. A cell phone rings or beeps with a text. This sudden activity is more stimulating to us. It can be compared to a flash of light in a dark room. We will reactively turn toward the light. A conversation with someone about an event, a work issue or a personal concern does engage us and captures our attention. Unfortunately, all too often, the activity on the familiar road changes drastically and becomes more dangerous. Now, it is grabbing our attention. In many cases, it is too late. Our brains do need to transition to the new stimulus being the most important and urgent. Our reaction time is not able to make up for the lost ground at the speed we are traveling and a crash occurs.

I am frequently asked the question: Why is talking or texting different than having a conversation with someone who is sitting in the car with you? The answer is that you are distracted; yet at the same time, you are receiving the additional benefit of an “extra pair” of eyes on the road. This person is able to foresee possible evolving situations and will often speak up and provide the driver with enough time to react.

What can we do?

If you are trying to lose weight, do you frequently put whip cream on your latte and hope it all works out in the end? If you are an alcoholic, do you stop at the tavern on your way home from work with the hopes of listening to some music and having a soda?

If you are attracted to answering a beeping or ringing phone, turn your cell phone off before entering the vehicle. Plan for designated stops if you really do have calls, texts and emails that need a quick turnaround.

All of us can take the steps today that lead to a positive outcome for all drivers, passengers, bicyclists and pedestrians!

For more ideas on how to be a great role model for your teen: Download Earned Privileges, a phased privilege program and read the US News and World Report article, Firm Parents Keep Teen Drivers Safe.

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