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Keenan: Why we continue to text and drive

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News
  • A 2013 survey found 98 percent of us are against texting and driving
  • Yet 43 percent read texts and 30 percent send them
  • Inattentive blindness is an inability to see something in front of us because our focus is elsewhere
  • Intermittent reinforcement: We respond just like Pavlov’s dog

I’ve done it. You’ve done it.

We know it’s terribly dangerous and we know it has cost lives. Yet we still think we will be the exception.

Surely Jacob Freybler, 17, of Ottawa County, who was killed this past June texting while driving, must have thought he was in control. Surely the driver who was texting when her car crashed into Loretta Strong of Macomb Township, paralyzing her from the waist down, thought she was immune.

It will be another couple weeks before police determine what caused the fiery crash that killed pregnant Kayla White last week. (It should be noted that her 2003 Jeep Liberty had been recalled because of the fire risk during a rear-end collision.) But the police did report that the Beverly Hills man was distracted while driving and that he rear-ended the Jeep with such force it flipped.

Tonight, as I drive home from work downtown on I-75 and encounter the usual rush hour traffic — with the cascading line of red lights creeping in fits and starts — I am likely to see at least two fellow drivers with the tell-tale head bowed, thumbs hard at work, the car drifting.

And yet, according to CDC, some 3,328 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2012, the latest year for which figures are available. While the CDC defines distracted driving as three types — visual, which is taking your eyes off the road; manual, taking your hands off the wheel; and cognitive, taking your mind off of driving — the worst of these is texting while driving, because it combines all three.

Not surprisingly, a 2013 survey found 96 to 98 percent of Americans are against texting and driving. But 43 percent of those surveyed read texts while driving and 30 percent sent them.

What is the disconnect? What do we engage in really risky behavior even knowing the perilous consequences? Why is it so tempting to say: It will just take a second? In short, why do we text and drive when we know better?

“A Deadly Wandering,” by New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Matt Richtel, weaves the story of Reggie Shaw, a Utah college student who caused a fatal head-on collision that killed two men while texting and driving, with chapters on the emerging science on the impact of technology on our brains.

It took two years for Reggie to admit responsibility (he then went on to become a leading advocate in the distracted driving movement). But part of the reason Reggie at first denied he’d been texting has to do with a phenomenon called “inattentive blindness.”

Inattentive blindness is an inability to see something right in front of us because we are attending to something else. Reggie came to understand, Richtel writes, “that it was possible for him to have his hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, and still be lost somewhere else.”

According to a scientist who testified in Reggie’s court case, inattentive blindness can persist for up to 15 seconds even after the texting. “When you move from texting back to driving, it takes a few seconds to reorient yourself,” Richtel explained in an interview this past week on NPR. “You say, ‘It only takes a second,’ but guess what? When you’re driving a missile down the road, you have a tiny margin for error. In some circumstances, every millisecond counts. That error could become deadly.”

In our love affair with our devices, Richtel maintains we fail to understand that our brains have limits. In short, technology is surpassing our own cognitive capacity.

Rather than making us more efficient, our devices manipulate us. The itch you feel when your phone on the table over there is beeping with a text message? Richtel says it’s due to intermittent reinforcement, and we respond just like Pavlov’s dog. “Because you don’t know when the good stuff is coming, you will check and check,” he said. “It’s like a slot machine, it’s very habituating. Even addicting.”

Compound that with our collective denial, the voice that says, “I can handle it. I’m a good a driver. It’s the other drivers I don’t trust,” and we are courting disaster.

Far better to heed Reggie Shaw’s lifetime lament: “The thing that is the worst is that it is preventable,” he said in the radio interview. “I could have shut my phone off. I could have waited another two or three minutes until I got to work. It didn’t have to happen.”