It started as normally as any morning: a 19 year old male gets into his SUV to drive to work in the freezing rain of an early morning. As he drives he sends and receives texts messages and drives so erratically that a tractor trailer driver behind him comments that nothing good will come of this. Prophetically, as the SUV barrels down the crest of a hill it drifts over the middle line, clips a Saturn which is flung crosswise in front of the tractor trailer, getting hit broadside before coming to a dead stop in a ditch. The 19 year old is fine. The 2 men in the Saturn traveling to work were killed.
My family knows that I keep my cellphone turned off when I have it in the car. They know not to call me from the road on their cellphones. There is the rare occasion when I'll speak to a brother who has a voice-activated hands-free system and then only in the event of a parent emergency.
My experience with motor vehicle cases and the pre-trial focus groups examining people's thoughts, feelings and opinions about texting and driving has shown me over and over and over again: folks don't like it; *but* it's always the other guy or gal who will cause the problem.
What explains our addiction to the pings and beeps and ringtones of incoming messages? For this we turn to a topic near and dear to the heart of my friend and colleague, Stephanie West Allen, who blogs as Idealawg: neuroscience.
According to Matt Richtel's article in the NYTimes, "A Texting Driver's Education", the battle between the prefrontal cortex where high-level decision-making occurs and the lesser but still critical primitive survival regions of the brain gets played out in unexpected ways when the cellphone summons, as follows:
When the phone rings or a text comes in, the sound can be just as urgent as a lion in the brush — and just as tough to ignore. Is it your spouse? Your boss? A new business opportunity? Primitive brain wiring compels you to answer. But what if you’re driving, like Reggie?
Much of the information that comes through is insignificant, even a nuisance, like spam. Wouldn’t that cause people to learn to ignore it? Perversely, just the opposite is true. The fact that the information is of variable value actually increases its magnetism. That’s because it creates a lure called intermittent reinforcement, a powerful draw that comes with uncertainty of the reward. It’s the very thing that causes a rat in a cage to press a lever repeatedly when it isn’t sure which press will bring the next delivery of food. It presses again and again, just as we click to open our text or email programs.
“What’s happening, in essence, is that you’re constantly scanning your texts and email because every once in a while you are going to get a good one and you can’t predict when that is,” says David Greenfield, a psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, where he teaches a class on Internet addiction. He compares the Internet to a slot machine, adding: “That’s why Facebook is so popular. It’s the fact that it’s dynamic and novel, and constantly changing.”
The idea that technology use affects the brain is supported by a growing body of neuroscience. Several studies show that when people play video games or use the Internet, they exhibit changes in the levels of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with pleasure, similar to changes in the brains of drug addicts. When you hit “send” or press a letter on the keyboard, it prompts a change on the screen, a picture pops up or an email opens, and you get a little dopamine squirt, Dr. Greenfield says, a kind of adrenaline rush. If you do it over and over, it conditions you to the rush, and in its absence you feel bored.
While no one is saying that cellphones and cellphone use are addictive in the sense that a narcotic is, these devices have additive qualities:
“The cellphone, and other similar technology, meet a deep need for social connection with a greater ease and greater potential detriment to it in the same way that a vending machine that is right down the hall plays to our need for calories,” says Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and a professor of social and natural science at Yale; he is an expert in the use of social networks across time.
To some researchers, it feels like a process of neurological hijacking, the taking over of our decision-making process."
And this quality which triggers a deeply ingrained reward process is what makes "It Can Wait" about as useful as "Just Say No."
Two things: after denying for two years that his texting was responsible for the two deaths he caused, Reggie Shaw finally saw how the battle between the focus on his driving was distracted by the primitive parts of his brain calling him to the phone. The science convinced him. Now he is on a one-man campaign speaking to anyone who will listen - especially young drivers - that his two counts of negligent homicide are just one text removed from this being another driver's story.
The other is the effort of several men who are closing in on perfecting a device that attaches to the car driving column and will block both incoming and outgoing texts as well as prevent incoming calls from reaching the driver: "Trying to Hit the brake on Texting While Driving." Some folks say there's nothing to be done until the self-driving car is on the road. But maybe folks like Reggie Shaw will help us align our behaviors and attitudes so that whatever is coming in over our digital devices really can wait.