Is phoning/texting while driving addictive? December 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , trackback
Here is an interesting piece from the New York Times on how to understand why drivers use their phones while driving, even when they understand the issues attached to that behavior. The debate over driving while distracted by networked gizmos is not new (see here, for example). As distracted driving continues to contribute to accidents, calls for action increase. The NTSB recently called for a ban on talking or texting on phones while driving throughout the US. Ontario recently enacted a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving.
However, such laws seem to be honored more often in the breech than in the observance. Drivers in BC, for example, seem to be largely ignoring the ban in their province. Furthermore, it is not clear how well such a ban could be enforced.
So, why do people engage in behavior they know to be risky and that has, in some places, been made illegal? Driving while texting has often been compared with driving while drunk, which poses a similar risk of injury. Yet, the analogy does not help to explain the behavior, as Dr. Greenfield of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine notes:
… people who drive drunk do not find any satisfaction in doing so. In contrast, checking e-mail or chatting while driving might relieve the tedium of being behind the wheel.
Instead, Greenfield and others compare driving while distracted with smoking, an addictive activity that some people also enjoy in the car.
Although cell phones are clearly not narcotics, they do have qualities that could make them addictive or, at least, habit-forming:
Part of the lure of smartphones, he said, is that they randomly dispense valuable information. People do not know when an urgent or interesting e-mail or text will come in, so they feel compelled to check all the time.
“The unpredictability makes it incredibly irresistible,” Dr. Greenfield said. “It’s the most extinction-resistant form of habit.”
In other words, cell phones provide a randomly scheduled operant conditioning regime to the user, a well-known and powerful way of creating behaviors that become ingrained and are difficult to undo (“extinguish”).
Dr. Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas argues that addiction is not the right notion, instead preferring an economic analysis. In his view, people respond quickly to cell phone beeps and burps because the information they provide rapidly loses value. A text that has just arrived may contain “hot news” that is most informative if read right away. The same text becomes less informative or valuable if the user puts off reading it for a while. It gets stale, and newer items pop up in the meantime, which tends to devalue the old ones.
Along the same lines, Clifford Nass of Stanford University points out that texts contain not just any old information but often convey information from friends. Because people are social animals, such information is important to them and, thus, they are responsive to it:
Drivers are typically isolated and alone, he said, and humans are fundamentally social animals.
The ring of a phone or the ping of a text becomes a promise of human connection, which is “like catnip for humans,” Dr. Nass said.
“When you tap into a totally fundamental, universal human impulse,” he added, “it’s very hard to stop.”
Each of these explanations suggests various approaches to address the problem. Perhaps cell phones could have a “driver mode”, like airplane mode, that disables or re-schedules the behavior of the cell phone. If the cell phone provided messages on a regular schedule, say every 5 minutes, then the compulsive reinforcement could be reduced or avoided. The phone could even generate boring auto-messages (spam) for the purpose. After a while, perhaps drivers would no longer care so much about that last beep and leave the phone on the “hook”.
Outgoing texts or calls could also be diverted to a temporary storage queue, for delivery after the driving mode is turned off. In that way, there would be less motivation for sending the message during driving itself instead of simply waiting for a break in the trip.
Of course, measures like these would work only so long as drivers honored the “drive mode”. They could cheat just by turning drive mode off and returning to normal operating mode. Dr. Atchley’s work suggests that there might be a way of dealing with this problem also. He tested teens to see if they would accept some sort of reward in lieu of receiving a text right away. He found that they would. Perhaps turning on “driving mode” could be associated with a reward which would be diminished or lost if it is turned off before the trip is over. We might, in effect, gamify driving without texting.
I note that this approach is taken by the TextNoMore Android app. It will be interesting to see if it works.
There is one more factor that may contribute to texting/phoning while driving. We have all seen other people doing so while driving virtuously ourselves. Next time you are on the road, glance at the drivers of other cars around you and you will soon note some who seem to be looking down at their flies quite a bit, or who have a phone nailed to their ear. Being social animals, people will always feel the sting of seeing scofflaws getting away with something. A natural response is to feel that this situation is unfair: Why do they get the benefit of texting while driving without suffering any penalty, while I do not? One way in which people seek redress is to engage in the illicit behavior themselves.
Perhaps a way to address this issue is to publicly shame those who text and drive. I do not mean they should be put in the stocks in the town square. Think instead of those radar speed signs that measure and display your speed as you pass them by. These signs seem to be somewhat effective in getting people to slow down. I suggest that similar signs be developed that can detect the presence of phone/text signals emanating from cars in traffic and display this fact for all to see. In that way, transgressors can be reminded to use “drive mode” and everyone else can see this occur. Then the appearance of unfairness is also addressed. Of course, the coverage of such signs must be limited, so it is not a perfect solution.