Texting and Driving: Some New Thoughts

[In honor of Teen Driver Safety Week, we're handing the keys over to contributing writer (and Actual Teen) Amy Tarczynski!]

Texting and driving is bad. You already know this because you’ve watched the videos and maybe even read the statistics. Most of us admit it’s bad, and a lot of the time we don’t actually intend to text and drive before we get in the car. So why do we do it anyway?

Part of the problem actually has to do with hearing those scary statistics: we don’t really believe they apply to us. It’s a phenomenon that cognitive scientist Tali Sharot named The Optimism Bias. Basically, when we think about our own futures, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen to us and underestimate the likelihood of bad things. In the context of driving, that means we overestimate our own capabilities. In fact, one study showed that 93% of U.S. drivers think that they’re in the top 50% of safe drivers. We also underestimate our likelihood of being in a car accident. This would explain why so many teen drivers will agree that texting while driving is bad but admit to doing it anyway: we know it’s dangerous in general, but we don’t quite grasp how much of a risk it is to ourselves specifically.

So half of the problem is that we don’t acknowledge our own risk. But even when considering that texting and driving is inherently dangerous, it still doesn’t always feel wrong in the moment.

The issue here is that we can’t perceive the magnitude of the distraction. Unlike driving while sleep-deprived, where you can physically feel your difficulties concentrating on the road, using a phone while driving creates a much more insidious set of distractions. Psychologists have studied impairment to visual attention from talking on the phone while driving: people talking on the phone (including hands-free calls!) miss visual cues like traffic signals and road signs and don’t know that they didn’t see them …and these are the people who are looking at the road the whole time. When you’re texting, your eyes aren’t on the road.

And there are two other forms of distraction besides visual distraction: cognitive distraction, and manual distraction. Texting and driving causes both of these types, by requiring a hand on the phone, not on the wheel (manual distraction), and by pulling attention away from the driving task (cognitive distraction).

Attention is a limited resource. So by looking up and down from your phone to text, it’s not just that your eyes are off the road for a second. Even when you’re looking up, your ability to perceive the visual field in front of you is impaired without you realizing it.

There is more to this conversation than just our perceptions of danger, from how social norms can affect our texting and driving behaviors to what government and nonprofits can do to spread more awareness. Nevertheless, because texting and driving is still such an “I know it’s wrong, but I do it anyways” type of problem, permanently shifting people’s mental models around texting and driving may require more than the prescriptive warnings and scary statistics that we’re so used to hearing.

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