“Texting Addicts” Are Not Immune to Environmental Forces

As has been discussed here before, driving while using electronic communication devices is dangerous whether you go hands free or not. Matt Richtel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering distracted driving (and is a very nice fellow to boot), has a piece in NYT today examining whether the reason people keep doing something so dangerous is that they are addicted to texting/calling on the road.

When Matt and I talked about this over the last few days, I was struck by how at least some people had suggested to him that there are, crudely speaking, two kinds of people in the world: Those who are affected by culture and environment and those whose behavior is an uncontrolled and uncontrollable addiction. It’s a common distinction to draw, but an erroneous one.

Even the most hard-core addict is affected by the environment. That’s why they often hide their addiction: They know it is culturally shameful. And as HOPE probation and Steve Higgins’ brilliant contingency management studies show, given a particular, predictable sets of rewards and punishments, even “hopeless addicts” can change how often and when they use substances. I know devout Muslims and Jews who are pack a day smokers yet always abstain at religiously appropriate moments (e.g., during Ramadan for the former and on Sabbath for the latter).

As my friends (including Harold Pollack) know, when I call someone and they tell me they are driving, I tell them I will call them back later when I can talk to them without putting them at risk. As this and parallel behaviors (e.g., asking the driver not to text while you are a passenger) become more normative, the culture will slowly shift to being less tolerant of texting and phoning while driving. And that will have a good effect on everyone, whether they consider themselves addicted to the technology or not.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

26 thoughts on ““Texting Addicts” Are Not Immune to Environmental Forces”

  1. My Nudge-type suggestion for distracted driving is a push-button feature that lets the driver incorporate a one-second delay in the conversation when the driver thinks driving conditions warrant. Slowing the conversation increases the attention that the driver spends on driving, and it also signals to the caller to either slow the conversation further or to offer to call back later.

    Research suggests adult passengers in cars reduce their conversational demands on drivers when they see the driver needs to concentrate, so this would be somewhat similar.

  2. “…, the culture will slowly shift to being less tolerant of texting and phoning while driving.”

    In the mean time, all the laws and regulations against the activities likely make them more dangerous instead of less.

    1. “. . .make them more dangerous instead of less.”

      based on what exactly?

      how much more dangerous driving is now that the threshold for intoxication is so much lower than it once was and the penalties for dui are so much greater?

      1. I can’t tell how you intend it, but it’s worth noting that, at least in MN where I live, decades of increasingly nuts lowering and draconianizing have had no demonstrable effect on any aspect of automobile safety.

        1. TQ White II: Alcohol-related fatalities in Minnesota have dropped substantially whether one looks at absolute numbers or proportion of all fatalities (link below). You might want to do research before you make bold statements that are verifiably incorrect.


          Perhaps despite the prior comment you meant all fatalities and not just DUI fatalities. So it’s worth mentioning that, as the link shows, 2009 had a lower number of all auto fatalities of all kinds in almost 30 years of data presented.

  3. Legal restrictions against talking and texting while driving would increase safety some because some number of people would do it less or not at all. Other people would continue the activities regardless. In addition to the distraction of the activities, they now have the distractions of attempting to hide what they are doing and keeping a lookout for the police. If texting isn’t illegal, drivers is likely to hold their phone near eye level so they can text and watch the road at the same time. Make it illegal and they’ll be glancing back and forth between the road and their lap.

    1. The horror! Paying more attention to what’s going on around them instead of getting completely absorbed in their phone.

      I remember pausing on a green arrow once because I could see that the driver approaching the intersection was not going to stop. Sure enough, they drove straight through without even slowing down, completely absorbed in their phone — which was braced against the steering wheel. I doubt this person even knew they just drove through an intersection.

  4. The Peltzman effect! Can nothing save us? /sarcasm

    We’re social creatures, and social norms are effective. Many legal regulations simply give more force to social norms, and I think that’s the case with laws mandating child seats, seat belts and sanctioning smoking in many circumstances.

    Using a cellphone while driving can be terribly dangerous. Texting is insane. We need to help each other out on these things.

  5. Texting is insane.

    Indeed it is.

    I remember the frist time I read about this problem, not very long ago. I truly wondered what kind of idiot would even think about texting while driving. Talking I could understand. But texting? Using your hands and not looking where you’re going?

    I was utterly astonished. I still am, really.

  6. What’s even more astonishing are the teenagers I work with who insist – with prejudice – that they can text and watch TV while driving without impairment of any kind (everyone here is aware of/has seen cars with front seat TV screens, right? either hanging from the roof or in the dash – I’ve seen both here in Texas). The most common rationalization is usually something along the lines of ‘I pay more attention cuz I know I have to.’ I’ve even heard, more than once, that ‘I drive better when I’m talking.’ The general attitude is that it’s accepted, ‘normal’ behavior, not even questioned, and defended sometimes as though one were trying to take away his/her God given right. “Astonishing” might be something of an understatement, and a gradual social pressure approach would be a prescription for a whole bunch of dead people. Which, if what I’m seeing/hearing is at all representative, is going to happen anyways. With swift and certain regulation we might be talking about keeping the carnage to a minimum. My half empty attitude, however, may have something to do with living in the state where future President of the World Rick Perry vetoed a stop-texting bill due to its infringement of our Murrican libertyfreedomright to do whatever the hell we wanna do, whenever, wherever, and to whomever we wanna do it.

    1. I’m not sure “I drive better when I’m talking” is such a crazy thing to say. Most of the time (thank goodness) driving takes far less than a driver’s full cognitive capacity. Some people stay alert anyway, some people look at the scenery, some daydream, many play music, some talk to their passengers and so forth. The crucial thing is to have a sink for the extra cognitive capacity that a) can be turned down or switched off instantly when driving does require full attention and b) doesn’t grow in cognitive demand itself, so that it infringes on driving attention or on the meta-attention needed to know when to switch modes.

      In this sense, the “addicts” who need something to do with their “excess” attention will still be addicts if they don’t talk or text, the question is what cognitive sinks they will choose instead, and whether those sinks will be safer.

    2. I agree that young people often feel more capable than they are. It’s the role of adults to model and enforce proper driving behavior. If these kids’ parents took their keys away for texting or talking while driving, they would stop. And of course, they’d need to not text while driving themselves.

      There must be a technological way to ensure that one is unable to text while driving. We just need to bite the bullet and do it. Apparently it’s too hard for police to see what people are doing, so that kind of enforcement isn’t adequate. I’m sure someone can write a GPS program that would shut down texting when the phone is moving through space at a certain speed (whatever is above walking, I guess — we don’t want cyclists doing it either!)

      1. But do you object to passengers texting/phoning while someone else drives? That can be extremely valuable and I wouldn’t want to curtail that for the sake of some numbskulls. (Speaking as a bicyclist whose had more than one close call with drivers on cell phones.) I suppose some sort of bluetooth device could disable it when it’s a certain proximal distance to the driver. And I’m sure that would create a whole new cottage industry of open source code to circumvent it.

  7. I can not talk on the phone or text while watching tv, much less while driving, so I don’t. Inattention blindness is very real for me.
    “…Vision is the most important sense for safe driving. Yet, drivers using hands-free phones
    (and those using handheld phones) have a tendency to “look at” but not “see” objects.
    Estimates indicate that drivers using cell phones look but fail to see up to 50 percent of
    the information in their driving environment. Distracted drivers experience what
    researchers call inattention blindness, similar to that of tunnel vision. Drivers are looking
    out the windshield, but they do not process everything in the roadway environment that
    they must know to effectively monitor their surroundings, seek and identify potential haz-
    ards, and respond to unexpected situations.2…”, http://www.nsc.org/…Driving/…/Dstrct_Drvng_White_Paper_Fnl(5-25-10).

  8. It’s always been clear to me that talking on the phone while driving was horribly, horribly distracting, and that the comparisons to other types of distractions (such as talking to a live person) that defenders make are hogwash. I don’t talk on the phone while driving because:

    1. Recreating an image of the person you are talking to in “mindspace” burns a whole lot of bandwidth. You don’t have to do that with a live passenger.

    2. Interpreting the compressed, mono electronic voice that comes to you through a cellphone burns a lot more bandwidth than listening to a live voice.

    3. Conversations that proceed without regard to what is going on in the space you are actually occupying are challenging — it’s like trying to play drums in 6/8 with your left hand, and 4/4 with your right. A live passenger conforms to the flow of life around them.

    It’s dangerous, and I personally feel anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves, or just too stupid to recognize danger in front of them.

  9. ppps, I agree that texting while driving is insane. How one could imagine doing a good job of driving while looking at a tiny device is beyond even me.

  10. I do have to wonder why there is such focus on this. If I’m not mistaken, talking to a passenger is only slightly less dangerous (they have situational awareness, and can shut up when there is a tricky situation), but we don’t outlaw carpooling. Fiddling with the radio, eating, smoking, and a host of other activities are not legislated. I see people putting on makeup in cars, and once saw someone shaving. I agree that many of those are bad ideas, but coming up with a policy response doesnt seem to lead to any human-compatible rules outside of Google automated cars.

    Sure, apply peer pressure if you don’t like an activity. But on this one, it does seem to be on the moral scold side of the line. For instance, I’m pretty sure we could reduce injury and death in some small measure in my city by shaming people who don’t wait for the walk light to cross the street. I do so daily, as does basically everyone else with two legs in San Francisco. Are you going to start scolding me over this? Arguably, the ability to get some work done and coordinate activity from a car is economically productive. And given that voice activated phones are now navigation devices as well, do you also wish to scold and/or sanction people for using GPS?

    1. >If I’m not mistaken, talking to a passenger is only slightly less dangerous

      You are verifiably mistaken. A passenger in the car stops talking when the driver gets into a difficult situation and offers an extra set of eyes, someone on the phone says “hello hello are you there?” creating an attentional demand at an inopportune moment.

      1. However, small children in the car are a very dangerous distraction. I can’t tell you haw many times I’ve witnessed dangerous swerving or inattention on the part of mothers. Especially so since we discovered that the little angels my not sit in the front seat.

        Also, tiredness. After a hard day, I often struggle to keep myself awake. No question that I’d support laws to make my work day less tiring.

        Also a bunch of people in that car. One person may not be a distraction but several often is.

        But the “hello hello” effect you suggest is not true. I’ve been driving for a lot of decades. Traffic mishaps take place much more quickly than a phone partner can detect.

        Driving isn’t a safe thing to do. Unless you are prepared to legislate against those other distractions, leave me and my cell phone alone.

        1. The “hello hello” effect is true. Even if it only happens 10% of the time and 90% of the time the caller on the other side realizes the driver needs to pay attention to the road (unlikely to be that high) then 10% of the time they’re making a dangerous situation worse.

          Some accidents come out of nowhere, but others have a buildup (extra traffic, drivers merging, unsure of where to turn etc.).

        2. But the “hello hello” effect you suggest is not true. I’ve been driving for a lot of decades. Traffic mishaps take place much more quickly than a phone partner can detect.

          You should take a look at Mike O’Hare’s post today. Your analogy is similar to “Smoking doesn’t cause cancer — I know, I’ve smoked for decades and I don’t have it”. Because phone calls can be tracked nearly perfectly, assessing the impact of phone use on automobile fatalites deaths can be done with reliability at a national level, and that systematic data trumps (on this site anyway), your pers’nal ‘sperience.

      2. Ok, I accept that. [citation needed], but, sure. So your next effort will the to outlaw drive through restaurants, yes? Because that is another 200 or so deaths that making a rule could have prevented.

      3. Given that you want to pick and choose, I’ll leave the rest. Should we sanction people for talking to their GPSes if the happen to be in a car?

  11. Unquestionably texting while driving is a bad idea. So is brushing your teeth while driving, picking your nose while driving, and composing limericks while driving.

    The thing is, where’s the evidence that it’s causing problems on a scale which actually demand action? Beyond an NTSB ‘study’ that throws together all causes of inattentive driving? The advent of widespread cell phone ownership certainly hasn’t coincided with a surge in auto accidents.

    Then again, if it distracts Congress from more substantive, damaging legislation, I suppose it’s worth the idiocy.

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