Lately I have noticed a new trend, stoplight texting. It happens at almost every major intersection with a signal, especially when there are more than three cars waiting for the light to turn green. You have probably experienced it yourself. When the light turns green, at least one car just sits and doesn’t move as the cars in front of it goes through the intersection. Then the person will look up from their phone (sometimes after I gently honk) and speeds through the intersection before the light turns red. Invariably, because of their bad smartphone habit, the light changes before I can go through the intersection and I am stuck at the red light.
You may think this is just a minor inconvenience, but a new study conducted by AAA about teenagers and distracted driving shows that our texting and driving habits are having disastrous results. What makes this study so compelling is that it is based on 1,700 videos that were recorded as teenagers were driving. They discovered distraction was a factor in 58 percent of all crashes, including 89 percent of road-departure crasheds and 76 percent of read-end crashes. Before this study, it was thought distraction was responsible for only 14 percent of all teen driver crashes.
How big is this problem? In 2014, about 963,000 drivers age 16-19 were involved in automobile accidents, with 383,000 injuries and 2,865 deaths. With just over 20 million teens age 16-19, this means almost 5% of this age group was in an accident. Most significant almost 60% of these were preventable. The two biggest distractions they discovered was talking to someone else in the car (15%) and cell phone use (12%).
An earlier study by the AAA found that adults were far more likely to be using their cellphones while driving. While only 20 percent of teens reported using a cell phone while driving in the last month, forty-three percent of adults ages 25 – 39 reported doing so.
This study points to a much larger problem with our use of our techgear and how it is affecting the way we think and interact with the larger world. Matt Richtel, in A Deadly Wandering, A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, tells the story of Reggie Shaw, a college student in Utah, who fatally struck two rocket scientists as he was texting and driving. One of the first cases that was actually prosecuted, Richtel uses this example to explore the wider issue of attention and how our digital life affects our brains and the way we make decisions.
In the book he interacts with leading neuroscientists to discover how our use of smartphones and tablets is affecting the way we think. In this example he shows how powerful our devices are. “There are few impulses as basic and inescapable as the one that urges you to turn around if someone taps on your shoulder. You must discover if the person is an opportunity or a threat. When your phone rings, it is a proverbial tap on the shoulder. You want to find out who it is. You need to. Your bottom-up survival system demands it.” (p. 215)
But our devices don’t just ring when someone calls us. They are designed to send pings and dings to us whenever we receive a text, a message, or an alert from our favorite news source. As a result we live in a constant state of distraction.
When coupled with driving, this creates a dangerous mix. Reggie’s story illuminates the problem with texting and driving. Most people just don’t send one text. In fact, texting, especially if it is done in the midst of a heated argument or intense debate is an ongoing discussion. Before he crossed into the wrong lane and crashed into the oncoming car, Reggie had been involved in a series of texts with his girlfriend.
Dr. David Strayer, a researcher in the area of attention and performance, gave testimony at Reggie’s trial. What he said is worth repeating. In his research he used an important term, “inattention blindness.” He said, “Depending on the complexity of the driving task, it may take fifteen seconds or more after you’ve push ‘send’ before you’re fully back in an unimpaired state.” (p. 274)
Reggie, who had been having problems remembering what had led to the crash came to a revealing thought after hearing Dr. Strayer’s testimony. “What if I was so preoccupied that I actually didn’t know what was going on?” (p. 275)
And that is the problem. As much as we would like to think we can handle multiple inputs at the same time, our brains are not designed for the demands of the digital age. We can only focus on one thing at a time. As the iKids Generation, whose leading edge is 15-years-old gets ready to drive, now is the time to teach them the importance of driving distraction free before it is too late.
So what should we do?
- The leading edge of the iKids (born since 2000) is fifteen-years-old and will be hitting the road next year. This generation who sees digital technology as their birthright will need specific guidance from parents, teachers, and youth leaders on how to drive without being hooked up to their techgear. They will need to be taught how to focus on the road and to pay attention to what is happening around them while they drive.
- We should be asking car manufactures what business they are in — making cars or digital platforms? Putting digital interfaces with access to social media sites, internet service, and mapping apps in dashboards next to the driver is a recipe for disaster, especially for young drivers. It invites and encourages distracted driving, putting every person on the road at a greater risk of being in an accident.
- Parents need to ask what they are teaching their children about driving. If they are constantly talking and texting (even at stop lights) while they are behind the wheel, they are teaching their children that driving a car is just an afterthought, not a skill that demands our full attention. They must realize they are the primary teachers of driving and their children will follow their examples, examples that could lead to deadly consequences when their children start driving.
Craig Kennet Miller is the author of iKids: Parenting in the Digital Age