Take Two for August 20, 2013

Why people just can't resist the urge to text while driving

Have you stopped texting and driving?

Flickr/Skip&Nell

Have you stopped texting and driving?

If you've been on the Internet at all in the past two weeks, chances are you've come across the public service announcement "From One Second To The Next," by acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog and AT&T.

The poignant 35-minute documentary weaves the stories of four groups of people, both victims and perpetrators, whose lives were torn apart due to distracted driving accidents. 

In each case, the driver in question was texting and not paying attention to the road. Some victims lost their lives, others were injured so badly they will never regain the freedom they enjoyed before the accident. 

Since its debut, the film has gone viral online and will be shown in thousands of schools this fall, but it's hard to tell whether it will  have an effect. A recent survey by the Automobile Club of Southern California shows that since 2008, when using your phone while driving became illegal in the state, texting is up 126 percent, though talking on the phone is down 57 percent.

The dangers texting and driving and the heavy consequences that follow have been well documented, but why can't people resist the urge to pick up their phones behind the wheel?

"In a sense our brains are hardwired to text," said Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, on Take Two. "We want to stay connected to others and we've found this device that we have with us all the time that allows us to connect with others."

For many people, this means despite the countless warnings and laws enacted to steer people away from distracted driving. In essence, it's what Dr. Small calls a "battle of the brain."

"The dopamine circuits, the reward circuits that make us feel good, are driving us to text. The front part of the brain, the thinking brain, the frontal lobe, is telling us this is not a good idea, look at the tragic consequences," said Dr. Small. "It's not just texting. People drink and drive, they do all kinds of crazy things that their better judgment tells them they shouldn't do, yet it feels good in the moment to do it."

The problem is especially bad in southern California, where car culture reigns and many people commute in traffic from far away. Sitting alone in a car that long can be depressing and lonely, so naturally people have the urge to use their devices for some relief.

With the addition of laws, people even engage in more dangerous behavior to avoid getting caught. 

"Texting allows us to connect in a way that we think is efficient. But it's clearly inefficient, and we don't know how to regulate it," said Dr. Small. "What happens is we say this is illegal, so what people do is they hold their devices even lower so they won't get caught. It makes it even more dangerous."

Even though laws that impose large fines for distracted driving will help people curb behavior in the short term, people often slip back in to bad habits over time. 

"We tend to forget," said Dr. Small. "People will get tickets and they'll go to driving school and they will stop rolling through stop signs, but after about six months or so they find that their driving habits become lax again."

So what can be done to combat this "battle of the brain"? On the one hand it may fix itself over time as technology makes driving easier and safer — self-driving cars, accident avoidance technology, for example. But Dr. Small says the quicker way to fix the issue is to start with the devices. 

"I think the way to deal with this is to come up with devices that turn off in the car," said Dr. Small. "We have this to some extent with GPS in cars, you cannot program your GPS while your car is moving."

For now, it's up to those driving on our roads to voluntarily stow their phones away while behind the wheel. The emotional resonance of Herzog's film is indeed a wake-up call; after viewing, most people would have a difficult time not thinking twice before texting while driving.

But the challenge that remains is how to get people to change their behavior not only in the short-term, but permanently.

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