Health Front: Cell Phones and Driving, the Crave That Kills
By DR. JERRY DeCAPUA
• The National Safety Council estimates that 213.000 car crashes in the United States in 2011 involved drivers who were texting, up from 160,000 the year before. A recent survey by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that the drivers who are texting are twice as likely to crash, compared to those who are focused on the road. Another survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals that about one-third of American adults had e-mailed or texted on their phones while driving during the last month.
The U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calls it a “national epidemic.” Over forty states have now outlawed texting while driving, and police are experimenting with more enforcement strategies. Even though another survey showed that 94 percent of Americans think that it should be illegal to phone or text while driving, it still persists. Among teens, the problem is very worrisome.
A powerful compulsion appears to be at the root of this affliction. Something is overriding a person’s knowledge that what they are doing behind the wheel is dangerous. When most people realize that their seat belt is unfastened, they put it on. They realize and understand the danger and react by driving safely. But phone calls and texting appear to be different where reason and common sense is compulsively overridden.
Researchers suspect that phone texting is unlike any public safety issue we have dealt with before. Judgment is clearly deferred to a strong impulse. So much so, that the impulse or habit is affectively one that is being programmed by the smartphone. The new urge to check our e-mail, texts or Facebook is an intense reinforced habit, not much different than an addictive drug. Many people are starting to realize that answering a smartphone is more a habit than a decision – a move they make without thinking, or with any hesitation.
Habits form when we do something that is automatic, sometimes even involuntary. Researchers who study the psychology of habit formation are finding that cellphone use fits this category perfectly. In one experiment 136 test subjects were given smartphones equipped with software that kept track of their usage for six weeks. The subjects pulled out their devices for brief periods up to 60 times per day, according to the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, and tended to interact with them in ways that met several definitions of habitual behavior. In diary entries, subjects indicated they were moved to pull up certain applications under the same circumstances over and over. Those who repeatedly checked their e-mail or looked for news, for instance, said they consistently did so when they got bored. But a strong yearning can be mistaken for boredom. They want to stay alert and be able to respond, so they won’t miss anything.
Another research study on automated habits studied 441 college students. They were asked a series of questions adapted from a more general questionnaire used by psychologists to assess habit formation. Those students who scored high for addictive personality also tended to be the same people who admitted to texting on a regular basis.
One’s desire to reach for the phone and stay connected is often rooted in complex emotions like loneliness and curiosity, and the need to satisfy an inadequacy. Humans crave resolution, and smartphones offer it, over and over, all day long.
The heart of the texting and driving problem is that people who habitually use their cellphones in daily life have a hard time stopping themselves from reacting to compulsive triggers while behind the wheel. It is not realistic to think that an addictive personality can exercise inhibition once they start driving down the road. One simple solution may be as easy as putting on one’s seatbelt. One really needs to turn off the phone as soon as they get into a vehicle.