Most of us do it, even though we know better. We put our lives and others’ in danger on the road. I’m not talking about drinking and driving. I’m talking about something that research shows to be even more dangerous: distracted driving. There are countless ways our attention can stray from the road, from chatty passengers to GPS navigation, but the main culprit is that pocket-sized computer you might be reading this blog post on right now.
Around the country, stricter laws are being passed that prohibit the use of a cell phone in the car for any reason, or put harsher penalties in place for doing so, but legislation hasn’t been as effective in deterring the behavior as we need it to be. In 2013, 3,154 people lost their lives in crashes involving a distracted driver, and 424,000 more were injured, marking a 10% increase since 2011. It’s estimated that 330,000 of these injuries were caused by texting and driving alone. If the average text takes five seconds to type and send, and you’re driving 55 mph down the highway, it’s effectively the same as driving the length of a football field, surrounded by dozens of vehicles, blindfolded. Worth the text? I don’t think so.
Why is distracted driving such a problem?
It isn’t just about texting. We’re also responding to emails, tweeting, and – alarmingly – even video chatting from the driver’s seat. The key to stopping the temptation in its tracks is to keep our phones out of eyesight and arm’s reach. No matter how much self-control we think we have, research has shown that we’re increasingly becoming conditioned to respond immediately to the stimuli of vibrations, pings, and rings. There’s even something called phantom vibration syndrome: the relatively common phenomenon of feeling your phone vibrate when it actually hasn’t. Our obsession isn’t a mere psychological weakness to overcome, but rather has a source in our biological makeup. Dopamine, the chemical neurotransmitter involved in our brain’s reward and pleasure system, is released when we check a message or notification on our phones via the same process that underlies drug addiction. Most of the time, this amounts to a relatively harmless habit. But behind the wheel, it’s extremely dangerous, even unethical.
The keys to the solution are in your hands
Out of complete transparency, I must admit that I use my phone in my car, mostly to “innocently” check texts or emails while stopped at red lights or to read an article in the Starbucks drive-through line. Even though I try not to text or change my Spotify playlist while driving, I know I give into the temptation from time to time, under the misguided thinking that I’m a smart driver and should, therefore, be able to multitask for just a moment. But accidents happen in a splitsecnd (I couldn’t resist), and it’s simply not worth risking my life or anyone else’s for something so trivial.
Our cell phones are a pandora’s box of distractions, which is why I’ll be locking mine up in my glove box for safe keeping over the next 30 days. I’ll be writing updates about my experience throughout the month, and I invite anyone to share their stories about distracted driving with us or even join me in this experiment. My hope is that driving without my phone will become a new habit that sticks for life. It’s up to each of us to make the choice every time we get in our cars to prevent distracted driving.