Texting and Driving

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Here’s your Thursday skill-testing question: Put the following three actions in order, from least dangerous to most dangerous – driving while intoxicated; driving while talking on a cell phone; driving while texting. A collection of studies completed over the past six years or so, using simulations and naturalistic situations, indicates that the correct ordering is the one above that you just read. Texting-while-driving results in an approximate 20-fold increase in collision risk!

Now this research is just getting going, so please remember that comparing apples to oranges (does texting your girlfriend during a spat equate to four beers? Six?) takes a lot of work to sort out. But the evidence is crystal clear that if you’re not paying full and clear attention while operating a vehicle (or for that matter while operating a chain saw or having an important conversation with someone) then your performance will suffer very significantly, as may your health.

Some recent surveys shows that 20 – 33% of young drivers text when they drive. Many jurisdictions, including Ontario, have banned texting while driving, but some unfortunate effects may have ensued. There’s some evidence that the bans on texting may actually increase our vulnerability to having an accident, maybe because texters feel they have to be more awkwardly sneaky to text without getting caught. This just takes even more attention away from what has become the secondary task at hand, driving. Officials in accident-prone Abu Dhabi noted a 20-40% drop in accidents during the BlackBerry outage in October this year!

A potentially valuable question is, what predicts texting while driving? At this time we don’t know very much at all about what individual factors may lead some people to forgo safety and to text while driving. I would wager that those who do text and drive would already know intellectually that the act is dangerous. The issue touches in to that more general question and observation, why do we do things that we know are bad for us? We have to recognize that there exist internal influences, of which we may be unaware from time to time, that powerfully compel unhealthy behaviours, with inattentive driving being a case in point. Would being aware of our moment to moment unsafe motives and impulses make us (and everyone else) safer?

Research published this month in the journal Personality and Individual Differences investigated whether people who are more mindful, more attentive to their moment to moment thoughts and feelings, text-and-drive less. They measured mindfulness and texting-while-driving frequency in 231 undergraduates. They also asked each driver to rate themselves on statements such as, “When I’m feeling upset, I send or read text messages to distract myself”, to learn about any emotional and attentional motives that may influence texting-while-driving.

The study found that people who are more mindful text significantly less while driving and take more care to preserve their attention, such as by turning their phones off when they’re driving. Further, emotional motives seem to be a considerable determinate of many driver’s texting. Emotional upset, irritation and social curiosity were more frequently reported as motivators for texting among those who text-and-drive. The more mindful the driver, the lesser the role of emotional motives for texting.

While this is preliminary research, the findings point to the well-established view that we humans are driven to distraction by the internal flurry of emotional events. Parents and friends, as well as occupational health and safety professionals, would be wise to look at the emotional and attentional underpinnings of unsafe actions, and to consider that mindful awareness is a prerequisite to emotion regulation and the wiser mediation of complicated situations.