Rules of the Road

Why can’t we seem to put our cell phones down while driving? Blame the caveman

Washington Traffic Safety Commission in 2016 conducted an observational study of distracted drivers, finding that at any given moment, about nine percent of drivers on the road in Washington are participating in a distracting activity. Of those distracted drivers, 75 percent were distracted by a phone.
Washington Traffic Safety Commission in 2016 conducted an observational study of distracted drivers, finding that at any given moment, about nine percent of drivers on the road in Washington are participating in a distracting activity. Of those distracted drivers, 75 percent were distracted by a phone. McClatchy

Question: It seems like some days there are more people texting or talking on their phones while driving than there are paying attention. Is it really so hard to just leave the phone alone and drive?

Answer: Yes, it seems that it is. Here’s why: Cavemen. In more primitive times, a human’s ability to survive depended on reacting quickly. Every unidentified sound could be a threat or an opportunity. The rustle in the bushes could be a tiger about to pounce or an antelope that could feed a hungry family. Either way, to survive you had to act fast. Our ancestors heavily relied on the part of the brain that reacts without cognitive processing.

In modern times, most of the signals our brain receives aren’t urgent, and many of them are even worthless. We can use the cognitive portion of our brain to think about whether we should respond to something or ignore it. But when the phone rings or a text alert chimes, that primitive part of our brain still sends us a message telling us to respond. I guess you could say that people who are compelled to answer a phone call or text while driving are insufficiently evolved.

In regard to the frequency of drivers distracted by their phones, it does appear rampant. In another question I received on the topic of cell phones and distraction, the writer called it “the disease”. Maybe it was an allusion to how distracted phone use has escalated to pandemic proportions.

For the first time, in 2016, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission conducted an observational study of distracted drivers. The results showed that at any given moment, about nine percent of drivers on the road in Washington are participating in a distracting activity. Of those distracted drivers, 75 percent were distracted by a phone. The rest were observed in some other distracting behavior, such as eating, tuning the radio or attending to pets or children.

When I’ve shared these numbers with people face-to-face, I often get strong opposition, insisting that it must be higher. If you’re talking about the crash rates of distracted driver, you’d be right.

The crash data show that distracted driving is dangerous. The nine percent of distracted drivers I mentioned earlier are involved in about 30 percent of crashes in Washington. It’s hard to argue with that kind of over-representation, and actually not many people do. In a AAA traffic study, 83 percent of respondents said that drivers using cell phones is a “serious” or “extremely serious” problem.

Of the many kinds of distractions, cognitive distractions, which include talking on the phone and texting, present the greatest threat. That’s because they divert our mind from it’s primary task – driving.

Brain experts have shown that multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain can’t conduct two cognitive activities simultaneously, so it switches back and forth.

When evaluated in driving simulators, people who were talking on the phone looked at a smaller area of the road compared to undistracted drivers, and missed visual cues about approaching dangers. Once the brain finally recognized the threat, it took longer to respond, due to the switching time involved in shifting focus from the conversation to the driving. This phenomenon is called “inattention blindness”.

Earlier I mentioned that drivers need to use the more evolved part of their brain to ignore incoming calls and texts. Our distracted driving law also is evolving. Our first distracted driving law was passed in April of 2007 and put restrictions on texting or talking on a phone while driving. At that point our legislators couldn’t have imagined the shift that would take place only two months later, when Apple released the iPhone. By the time the law took effect in July of 2008, it was already out of date. The narrowly worded language led some interpreters of the law to conclude that while it ruled out texting, it didn’t prohibit checking your stocks online or playing Angry Birds while driving.

Right now our legislators are reviewing bills that would update the distracted driving law. The new version would update the law to better reflect the reality of current technology and simplify the enforcement of the law. If you support this evolution of the distracted driving law (or even if you don’t) this is your opportunity share your views on distracted driving with your representatives.

Hopefully, as we learn about driving risks we evolve and change our behavior. For those who need some assistance evolving, law enforcement all across Washington, including many of our agencies in the northwest corner, will be conducting distracted driving emphasis patrols beginning this week.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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