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We Know Texting While Driving Is a Terrible Idea. So Why Do We Keep Doing It?

by Mary Fetzer

October 15, 2015

So far, the first half of 2015 has seen a 14 percent increase in motor vehicle deaths over the same period last year. More than 18,000 car-related fatalities took place between January and June, and if the rate of increase continues through the end of the year, 2015’s fatality count could exceed 40,000. That’s the highest it's been in eight years. In a press release that accompanied the release of this data, the National Safety Council (NSC) attributed the increase to lower gas prices, leading to more traffic (and accidents) overall. But Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC, recently floated another theory to CNN Moneythat the increase in fatalities is a result of our addiction to texting while driving.

And it’s looking more and more like Hersman might be right, given that cell phone use while driving is the cause of one out of every four crashes—which adds up to 1.6 million crashes annually. That’s hardly surprising, considering that at any given daylight moment, about 660,000 drivers on U.S. roads are using their cell phones or some other electronic device.

Whenever the average driver checks a text message, he takes his eyes off the road for five seconds. That may not sound like a long time, but in five seconds, a car going 55 m.p.h. will travel the length of a football field. The odds are particularly dismal for young drivers, 25 percent of whom say they respond to at least one text message every time they're behind the wheel. As a result, 11 teens die in the act every day. And they’re probably picking up their behavior from Mom and Dad: 10 percent of parents admit to having had extended, multi-message text conversations while driving. 

Yet texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk. And the sad fact is, most of us already have some sense that that’s the case. In a study from the University of Connecticut Medical School released last year, 98 percent of those surveyed said they know the practice of texting while driving is dangerous. Nearly 75 percent of them admitted to doing it anyway. David Greenfield, who led the study, seemed to have the same point of view as Hersman when he suggested to Time magazine that:

  • “The lure of text messages is actually a lot like the appeal of slot machines… Both can be difficult compulsions to overcome for some people. The buzz of an incoming text message causes the release of dopamine in the brain, which generates excitement.”

If Hersman is right that motor vehicle fatalities are on the rise not because of lower gas prices but because so many of us can’t peel ourselves away from our phones while driving—then America has a deadly, and extremely confounding, epidemic on its hands. And repeating shocking statistics ad nauseum alongside don't-text-and-drive campaigns may not be enough to solve the problem.

What America needs is a major paradigm shift. Driver safety advocate Douglas R. Horn is the force behind Drive By Example, an initiative to reframe the overall culture of driving, which is tainted by road rage, higher rates of speed, and ever-increasing distractions. Horn's plan is three-fold:

  • 1. "Protect Yourself." Knowing that Americans show no sign of stopping, drivers may begin to recognize that they must protect themselves. Every person that drives defensively—in an effort to protect himself from other drivers who text and drive—is one less offender behind the wheel.
  • 2.Make It "Socially Unacceptable" to Text and Drive. The public's perception of texting while driving should be just as criminal and contemptible as its view of drunk driving. To avoid behaving in a socially unacceptable manner, drivers may be less inclined to reach for the phone while driving.
  • 3. Model the "Highest Degree of Care" Behind the Wheel. The Drive By Example platform aims to improve America's driving culture by insisting that every driver model a "highest degree of care" approach every time he or she is behind the wheel…fixing the problem one person at a time.

Overhauling the driving culture of an entire nation is no small feat and will definitely take time. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are attempting to manage the texting and driving problem—so far with very little success. There is no federal law to prohibit texting while driving, though the behavior is illegal in 46 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But just how effective are these laws? Not very. Most texting drivers, unfortunately, are cited after an accident has occurred.

Despite the fact that those 660,000 Americans are texting in broad daylight, the cops aren't busting a whole lot of offenders. A 2013 study by USA Today revealed that texting drivers are rarely cited anywhere in the U.S., and a 2014 study by the American Journal of Public Health indicated that current laws, unfortunately, do not significantly reduce motor vehicle deaths.

Drivers who text know how to keep those phones low and out of the sight of law enforcement officers, but that's not the only problem. The laws themselves have loopholes. In some states, for example, texting while driving is illegal but Googling directions, checking Facebook, and conducting other smartphone activities are not. And some laws declare that texting while driving is only prohibited when the vehicle is moving, leaving drivers free to text away at stop signs and red lights.

Still, there’s a lot of hope out there for a solution. The very generation that is accused of being too attached to their phones is the group that's making the most progress. With a desire to leave a smaller carbon footprint, earth-conscious teens are less interested in driving than their parents and grandparents were. And the 15-to-21 age group is the only category of drivers that has experienced a decline in texting-related vehicle fatalities as a result of recent laws. Though these may be small steps, they’re heading in the right direction.

Illustration by Brian Hurst. Thumbnail image from Flickr user Intel Free Press (cc).

Throughout 2015, we're partnering with Progressive to harness the power of information. Each week, we'll put data under the microscope, asking how statistics and research can empower us to challenge our understanding of ourselves and the ways we navigate our world. Knowledge is the first step on the way to progress: Let's take this information and drive change in the world together. This is Data for GOOD.

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We Know Texting While Driving Is a Terrible Idea. So Why Do We Keep Doing It?