The Science Behind Distracted Driving

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On a daily basis, we are constantly reminded to drive safely. Whether it is the “Stop Texting and Driving” bumper stickers, billboards, or the Pokemon Go update that stops the app if it senses the user traveling at a certain speed, we are constantly reminded that distracted driving is a bad idea. Yet with all of the signs and all of the numbers, we continue to allow ourselves to be distracted while driving. We’ll delve in to what constitutes distracted driving, why it continues to happen on such a large scale, and what we can do to prevent it.

What is distracted driving?

Simply put, distracted driving is any activity that takes attention away from the driver of a vehicle. These distractions can be broken down into three main types: visual, manual, and cognitive. Visual distracted driving can include anything from texting on your phone, to applying makeup, looking at navigation and entertainment systems, or even playing a game. Manual distractions involve taking your hands off the wheel, whether this is to pick up something that was dropped, eating, drinking, or tinkering with the stereo. And cognitive distractions are those that take your mind off of driving – speaking with other passengers in the car, driving while sad or angry, and a number of other potential risks.

As we all know, texting and driving is an especially dangerous distraction as it combines all three types. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reading a text message for five seconds is long enough to cover a football field while driving at 55 mph. That’s a considerable distance to be driving without looking at the road. And of course, not only does this put your life at risk, but it endangers the lives of those around you.

Remember that it’s best to err on the side of caution … if an activity takes attention away from the task of safely driving a vehicle – it’s distracted driving.

Statistics

According to a report conducted in March 2017 by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are nine fatalities and 1,000 injuries daily involving distracted drivers. This adds up to nearly half a million people each year. In the United States, 69 percent of drivers aged 18-64 admitted to using their cell phones while driving. And the young drivers, under age 20, are not only the most avid texters, but they make up approximately 27 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes attributed to distracted driving. A personal injury law firm in California stated that during daylight hours, 90 percent of total drivers are using their cell phones and other electronic devices every second. This activity alone increases the risk of becoming involved in an accident by three times over normal risk probability. And if you throw texting into the mix, according to the CDC, accidents are 23 times more likely.

Yet, despite all of the risks and all of the information that we have to tell us distracted driving is bad, we continue to do it en mass. Do we as humans just possess a general disregard for our own lives and those around us, or is it something deeper than that? Science seems to think the latter.

Why do we do it?

It’s ok. We’re all guilty of it. But many times, knowing why we do something is often the key to changing that behavior. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, claims that it all has to do with the addictive nature of smartphones and how our brain instinctively responds to incoming texts or social media updates. He states that in most cases, we aren’t even aware of the effects that phones have on our brains because it’s a chemical reaction. When we hear the sound of a text or the notification of an update, our brain gets a sudden jolt of dopamine.

Dopamine is the chemical that leads to increased arousal, amplifying the reward receptors in our brains. These “reward centers” are the same places in our brain that have to do with pleasure from eating, gambling, smoking, and drinking. So when we get a text, these reward centers light up and we receive an increased burst of dopamine, which feels good. Even still, why would we potentially sacrifice our lives for a text?

Well, Greenfield goes on to explain that in an elevated dopamine state caused by text messages or notification updates, the reward center shuts down access to our prefrontal cortex, which is where our reasoning and judgement occurs. So while we know that a text message is not worth a life, in the event of a text message, we have less access to the part of our brains that would normally allow us to reason and think logically.

What can we do about it?

Put the phones down, people. As our Florida tagline reads: “Don’t text and drive. Arrive alive.” Fortunately, car companies are playing their part in the fight against distracted driving. There are many smartphone apps that will lock your phone while driving to eliminate these potential risks. Many vehicles also come equipped with Bluetooth voice-command that make it easier to keep your eyes on the road while handling all of your calling and texting needs.

Lately, Mitsubishi has been dominating the automotive technology game with a variety of electronic safety features that can help with the distractions. Features like blind spot detection, lane departure warning, and forward collision warning systems can all help to reduce the possible disasters that result from distracted driving. In addition, Mitsubishi has began to introduce an advanced distracted driving assistance system that will track driving habits to detect when and how often a driver is alert.

While car companies are doing what they can to combat these distracted driving statistics ,it’s up to us to create a change. It’s easy to think that a text message could be potentially important. It could be a loved one in need of assistance, or it could be the call or message you’ve been waiting weeks for. Regardless of what it is, why would we put something down and not engage in an activity that instills pleasure? Well, because driving is not only a freedom, but it is a responsibility that can have consequences bigger than ourselves. The cons vastly outweigh the pros in this scenario, and as we have all heard before … “it can wait.”