We hear horror stories about how a simple text message while driving changed someone’s life. These people aren't necessarily inexperienced or reckless drivers, some have been driving for years without ever being involved in a major accident.
We are constantly warned not to text or read messages while driving because it is so dangerous, yet many people still do it. It seems simple enough though, just don’t pick up your phone while you are driving. Nothing tragic will happen if you don’t answer a text message straight away; it can wait until you have stopped moving, so why do so many people still do it?
The solution isn't as simple as telling someone "just don’t do it". As my Dad would say “If telling people what to do actually worked parenting you would be a lot easier”. Do you think people text while driving because they don’t know it is illegal? Not really, everybody knows that. Is it because they don’t know it is dangerous? Not really either, we get bombarded by these types of messages. Or is it because they are stupid? The fact is that even very clever people do it. Our first impressions don’t help us understand what is happening. Maybe the latest research from neuroscience can shed some light?
What is becoming increasingly clear from the science being conducted is that most of what we do is subconscious. What that means is, what we intuitively know - that people are creatures of habits. Most of what we do (scientists estimate around 95%) is in “autopilot”.
How does this relate to texting while driving? Cast your mind back to when you started to drive, the first day you got behind the steering wheel of the car, how much attention were you paying? A whole lot for most of us – you were using your conscious mind because you were apprehensive of this new activity. As time went by, the repetition and a lack of bad consequences made you feel more comfortable so that you felt you could afford to pay less attention – you engaged your “autopilot” mode more readily as time went by. Continue with the repetition and a lack of bad consequences and the “autopilot” becomes the preferred mode, the norm. Research has discovered that 90% of the time when we drive we are not thinking about driving. Have you ever gone into your driveway and asked yourself “what road did I use to get here?” That’s an example of the “autopilot” mode at work. Even complex operations like driving a car can be done almost entirely automatically with enough repetition and a lack of bad consequences.
When you feel comfortable with a task, you allow yourself to pay less attention. We do that intuitively without even noticing it. So texting while driving is just an example of this. What do you think happens most of the time when people text while driving? Absolutely nothing. So, the repetition and a lack of bad consequences embeds it deeper until the impulse (or habit) to do it overcomes any conscious understanding of the dangers involved.
People often state how they use their phone all the time and never have an accident – and that may be true. Just because you do it and don’t have an accident doesn't mean that you never will. Texting while driving leads to 3 results you may not have considered. Firstly, your reaction time will be longer because your focus is not on the road. You will need a good deal of luck if something unexpected happens. Secondly, because you are not looking and thinking about what you are doing you will not be able to anticipate an incident in order to avoid it. And thirdly, because you are focussing on the texting, you do not pick up the mistakes you make and therefore think you are much better than what you actually are.
So knowing this, are you going to stop texting while driving? Or will you continue to gamble your life for a simple text message that could have waited? Most likely not, especially since this is just once again telling you not to text and drive.
It is not a matter of willpower or discipline; it is a matter of learning a newer safer habit. One thing you can do is to provide yourself a circuit breaker to this subconsciously driven impulsive habit by giving yourself a prompt not to text while driving. One such initiative is called red thumb reminder (www.redthumbreminder.com/red).
This blog is an excerpt from Third Generation Safety by Cristian Sylvestre.
Cristian takes what neuroscience is revealing about how the brain functions and explains how our human limitations impact our personal safety and what individuals and organisations can do about it.