Human beings have a strange fondness for engaging in behaviours they know are likely to kill them; smoking, swimming with sharks, hard drugs, and the apparently irresistible habit of using a mobile phone while driving a big, deadly motor vehicle.
Using a mobile phone while driving is such a stupid cause of death that, before the mobile phone, it would have only been comparable with reading a book or closing your eyes while behind the wheel.
The incredible thing is, we all know how dangerous it is. So, why do we keep on doing it?
To understand why we are like this, we need to reflect on how humans evaluate risk.
When we are going about our everyday lives, we use our common sense and past experience to guide us. When we have done certain things before, we already know what to expect.
So the first time we hear that notification sound for an urgent text come through while we are behind the wheel, we give it a shot and see how it goes. After a few goes, it seems to be working out fine.
We think that if something out of the ordinary happens right before our very eyes, we are going to notice it. Even when we put our heads down to text, we think that we can just quickly keep switching our attention between our phone and the road. When we’re stopped at a red light, we can pick up our phone and then put it back down when the light turns green.
But, the problem with this application of our common sense is that it just doesn’t work.
Despite what we think, our attention will not be instantly grabbed by that disaster unfolding in front of us, even when we are looking in that direction.
But what about texting at the lights? That’s fine, right?
Well, not exactly.
When we put our phones down and return our attention to driving, it can actually take almost half a minute for our brains to remember what we were doing and where we are, and resume processing what our eyes are looking at once again.
Researchers at the University of Utah undertook a study for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and discovered that a driver travelling only 40km/h continues to be distracted for up to 27 seconds after disconnecting from highly distracting devices such as smartphones, car voice command systems and inbuilt infotainment systems. In 27 seconds, a driver travelling only 40km/h would cover the length of three football fields before regaining full attention.
Even a two second distraction, such as taking your eyes off the road to pick up your phone and see who is calling, increases your risk of crashing. At 60km/h, your car is travelling more than 16 metres per second, so in those few moments your eyes were on a screen rather than the road, you moved far enough to not see a motorcycle, pedestrian or someone suddenly braking in front of you.
Most people also think that they can hang up or put the phone down and are good to go, but that’s simply not the case.
Sending a short text message can cause almost another 30 seconds, on top of the time you are sending that text, of impaired attention.
But, I use hands free systems?
Fans of hands-free calls may argue that their conversations are no different to those held with a passenger in the car. So it doesn’t count, right?
The evidence begs to differ. One big difference between conversations with a passenger and mobile phone conversations is that the passenger can see what the driver sees. If the driver is trying to merge onto a high speed motorway from a slip lane, the passenger might use their common sense and shut up for a minute until the manoeuvre is complete. This is the same when driving through roadworks or driving in heavy rain. It’s just common sense.
David Strayer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah, points out that, “when you’re in the same physical environment, you tend to adjust your discussions to the difficulty of driving. If driving becomes difficult, they stop talking or they point out hazards.”
It just makes sense.
So, why can’t we just put the damn phones away?
When we hear the ping of an incoming text, social media update or email, our brain gets a hit of dopamine, a chemical that leads to an increase in arousal and energises the reward circuitry in our brains.
Our smartphones are affecting our brains without us even being aware of it.
When our brains are in that elevated dopamine state caused by the expectation of any notification, the activated reward centre in our brains does something else. It shuts down access to another part of our brain: the prefrontal cortex, where most of our judgement and reasoning occurs.
The same part of our brain that thinks, “okay, how important is this text? Is this text worth dying for? Is this text worth killing somebody else for?” The answer, of course, would be “no”. But if you have restricted access to that part of your brain when you’re in this state, then you’re not really using your judgement.
Smartphones are addictive. The need to receive a text message or “Holly mentioned you in a comment” notification is addictive. Our brain craves this. It craves it more than anything, and it just disregards everything else we know.
What is being done to stop people from texting and driving?
The warnings are everywhere. The “don’t text and drive” messages use every imaginable hook. But drivers continue to use their phones.
In 2014, Volkswagen released an advertising campaign in a Hong Kong cinema that drove the “don’t text and drive” message home to a captive movie theatre audience in a way they will surely remember.
Before the movie started, an unsuspecting audience was shown first-person footage of a car being driven down a straight road. A location-based broadcaster was then used to send out a text message to everyone in the theatre. See it for yourself below.
Nobody saw it coming, which was entirely the point.
In response to the increases in distracted drivers, Apple have come up with one potentially life-saving feature on their smartphones called “do not disturb while driving”. I turned this feature on as soon as I read this information, and it took me five seconds. It stops all notifications while your phone is either connected to your car Bluetooth or through motion detection (you get to choose).
Putting down the phone is the simplest answer, but we just can’t seem to do that can we. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t use our smartphones. Because that couldn’t happen. We just seriously need to stop using them while we are driving.