Distracted Driving: What Does It Say About Us?

Dec 02, 2013 | Updated Feb 01, 2014

What is distracted driving? In essence, a distraction has occurred when we can no longer pay full attention to some important activity that requires constant focus to be successful. In the case of driving, attention to the forward scene is the most important factor in avoiding traffic and roadway hazards. Failure to do so can lead to a fatal crash -- and indeed, the activity of driving safely fails often enough that there are nearly 35,000 traffic fatalities each year. Consequently, traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for persons aged eight to 24 years and the fourth leading cause of lost years of life overall. From this public health perspective, it is hard to imagine a more important reason to pay full attention to driving -- especially when the consequence of our actions not only determines the fatality risk for ourselves, but also for all the other people on the road with us.

Driver distraction -- in its many forms -- is a factor in nearly one in four injury crashes and one in six fatal crashes. And many of these forms of distraction are deliberate; that is, we decide to remove ourselves from the driving task to do something else, such as make a cellphone call. So what does it say about our culture when we deliberately distract ourselves from the goal of driving safely to instead send a text or make a phone call? It implies that doing so satisfies some other more important goal; that our culture values other things more than safety -- both for ourselves and those whom we meet on our roadways.

So why do we do this? Well, the research on driver behavior offers several reasons.

First, people often frame a decision within a short (immediate) time window. For example, the consequence of not answering an incoming call now is more salient to the driver than the future prospect of completing the trip safely. Similarly, some of our values will have a higher priority at different times depending on what else is going on at that moment. In this context, the cellphone is a multitasking tool that supports other values by providing fast communication, which allows us to manage our busy jobs and lifestyles successfully. In such circumstances, the value of safety may feel less pertinent.

Second, most drivers think they have better than average driving skills -- and therefore they can safely drive while interacting with their phones.

Third, young and new drivers many not have the experience and hazard awareness skills to recognize the risk associated with distractions from interacting with their phones.

Fourth, people tend to underestimate the risk of an action every time there is no obvious consequence from that action. Luckily, crashes are rare -- even when distracted. So each time we take a risk and experience no consequence, we see the risk of that behavior to be less. And as our perception changes, it increases our tendency to commit that "risky" behavior again. In essence, this is a form of gambling where the perceptions of losing decreases with each win -- so you bet more until you eventually lose everything.

Fifth, people have attitudes that using a cellphone while driving is a positive (e.g., fun) and useful (e.g., multitasking) behavior. These attitudes increase our willingness to be distracted while driving.

Finally, the issue of distraction is complicated by how our society perceives our cars and other vehicles as personal property and personal space. The design of the vehicle makes us and our behaviors anonymous, so we feel no social consequence from our decisions. Indeed, this anonymity may exacerbate the belief that we have the right to make any decision within the confines of our own vehicle space, much like we think we do in our own homes.

So what can we do? There are many models for using social and cultural influences to change human decision-making and behavior. By understanding these influences, we can develop programs that address the reasons I listed for why people may engage in distracting activities while driving.

For example, there are efforts to shift our culture away from focusing on the immediate and short-term time frame by embracing the virtues of a slower pace of life. Similarly, the use of incentives could change people's mindset for making decisions. For example, imagine cellphone companies providing some kind of reward for driving with the phone in "driving mode" (that automatically redirect calls). Or an insurance company that gives rewards based on each trip completed safely or without using a cellphone.

Even if we cannot make people value safety more, we can leverage other human values to encourage drivers not to be distracted. For example, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is exploring social messaging to show the link between cellphone use while driving and the risk of injury to another person; if people associate guilt and shame with their cellphone practices, it would prevent them from attaining the common human value of "peace of mind."

We can also provide experiences to challenges people's beliefs that affect their decision to be distracted, such as their perception of their own driving abilities. For example, we could give novice drivers the opportunity to drive while distracted on a closed test track, in order to experience firsthand that they do not have the skills to drive safely while distracted. In fact, this type of demonstration has already been explored in Belgium and in the United States. Interestingly, the Dutch have even evaluated the effectiveness of a program that challenges the beliefs of novice drivers that they can drive while intoxicated.

Another form of belief that can motivate and justify our decision to be distracted is the assumption that most other people approve of that behavior -- or at least do not disapprove. Factually though, the "norm" is that most people disapprove, as demonstrated by their endorsement of bans on hand-held cellphone use while driving. Compliance with a group norm is a strong psychological motivator -- people want to achieve a sense of belonging to a group. Based on this, social media can be used to convey the true norm so that people are motivated to behave accordingly and feel accepted by the group.

Traffic safety messages can also be developed to change people's attitudes toward cellphone use while driving. The purpose of these messages is to change the emotion linked with cellphone use and our realization of what's important. In other words, an effective message could help drivers realize that the convenience of cellphone communication does not offset the danger of other possible outcomes -- including crashes. Importantly, these messages do not need to use fear. Rather, they can use other positive emotions (e.g., humor) and positive images (e.g., avoiding a collision) to create new attitudes.

And we can also make driving less anonymous by making distraction public. Imagine a car that automatically flashes its hazard lights (or some other public display) when the driver is on the cellphone. That way, the driver's risky decision can be broadcast, and those road users that might be affected can move away.

Now, I am not suggesting all these ideas are realistic, feasible or effective. And I realize that some of these may not be acceptable to our current culture. But in a way, that is my point. If we want to improve safety by reducing distraction, it will come at a cost. Tradeoffs will need to be made and we must re-prioritize what is important to us. But the long term benefits for each of us are real and large. Importantly, we would keep alive more of the 35,000 people who currently die each year in traffic crashes. And that may include you and the people you love most.

And I am optimistic we can change as a culture. We already recognize situations where we re-prioritize what is important to us and make decisions that delay our own personal gratification. For example, we agree to not use our cellphones while on flights. Notably, we would not accept watching the pilot of our plane send a text while landing. So we do have the capacity to value safety and to set boundaries on our own rights and behaviors in certain situations. We just need to expand that to driving.

I will leave you with a story from a presentation I made at a conference on distracted driving from cellphones. The question to me was, "Can we just design the cellphone to be safer to use while driving?" My answer was "Yes -- but I can also make a piano safer to play while driving. And do we think people should play the piano while driving?" For me, this dialogue highlighted the bigger question -- what activities should our society think are appropriate while driving. There should be only one. Driving.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to