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Psychiatrist Explains Why We Text and Drive

  • Treva Thrush

FILE -A motorist talks on a cell phone while driving on an expressway in Chicago, Dec. 19, 2013.

FILE -A motorist talks on a cell phone while driving on an expressway in Chicago, Dec. 19, 2013.

It's a familiar scenario: A driver responds to a text while driving. Looking down for those few seconds, the driver loses control and spins off the road, or doesn't see the car ahead slow down and crashes into it. Another accident that could have been avoided.

We hear these stories in the news, from friends or in public service ads warning of the danger of texting while driving. Statistics show that Americans who text and drive are 23 times more likely to crash than those who are not driving distracted. And they are six times more likely to get into an accident from driving while texting than from driving while drunk.

Most of us know this information, but most of us still do it — even if just for a quick glance at a notification. So why can't we resist the urge to answer a ping?

Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, said it's because our brains react to our smartphone the same way they react to a drug.

"When people do something that frequently, and to the extent of ignoring the impact, that tells you there's something psychoactive about that behavior or that drug," Greenfield said.

When our phones beep or buzz with a notification, he said, it's letting the brain know that something "potentially pleasurable" is waiting. This anticipation of pleasure causes our brain to release dopamine, which is a pleasure chemical released in the reward center of the brain. This chemical is associated with pleasures like food, sex, and drugs.

Greenfield said the anticipation of learning whether or not that notification will be pleasurable is much like the thrill of gambling.

"In essence, what the smartphone is, is the world's smallest slot machine," he said. "The fact that it's unpredictable is what creates the pull to keep looking at it and to feel compelled to pick it up no matter where they are or whether they're driving or walking."

Smartphones and neurobiology

But while neurobiological pathways of drug and smartphone use are comparable, Greenfield said drug abuse and excessive smartphone use aren't on the same addiction level. The urge to check our phones is more of an "irritability."

But that "irritability" isn't something to gloss over as insignificant. Greenfield defines the problem of distracted driving as a growing public health issue that our knowledge of the danger alone won't cure.

"The ability to act on our knowledge of it being dangerous does not necessarily hamper alone our choice to do it," he said. "You're playing with basic neurobiology, and that reward circuitry in the brain is just very powerful. It does override your judgement."

As smartphones have become an extension of our hands, this issue won't just go away. Greenfield said that public education, stricter laws and law enforcement could be a good start toward combating the issue.

Technology could also offer a solution to this technological problem. Greenfield said some companies are working to figure out a way to shut off a phone's data when we're driving so we won't hear any "pings" to tempt our eyes away from the road.

But ultimately, he said the public's sentiment could bring about the biggest change. Texting and driving has to become culturally unacceptable the same way drunk driving has, the way we've created awareness groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"It has to become not okay," he said. "It's so common and so prevalent and so dangerous and the stakes are so high. I'm not sure that we're going to be able to tolerate that."