Cell Phones: A Potentially Deadly Addiction

04/29/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

We can't help ourselves. We naturally want more of what makes us feel happy, at ease or socially accepted. Because addiction often is born from pleasure and convenience, even the most innocuous things can become addictive.

Cell phones are the new addiction, and a new public opinion poll from the National Safety Council shows Americans realize it. According to the poll, 82 percent of Americans believe cell phones are addictive. We only need to look around to see that perception materialize. The emergence of smartphones has exacerbated our addiction to connectivity, not to mention pleasure. Scientists have shown our brains get a hit of dopamine - the chemical linked to happiness - when we hear our phones beep or ring.

Our addiction is relatively harmless when we're using our phones to talk or surf the web from our couches. But when we're behind the wheel, our addiction can be lethal.

Calls can kill. Just as science proved there is no safe way to smoke, science continues to prove there is no safe way to talk on a cell phone and drive - not even hands-free.

When we are addicted to something, we search for ways to justify our habit. With cell phones, two critical cultural ideals have helped us do so. First, multitasking has long been considered a skill and integral to success. We feel like we can - and should - do everything at once. Second, society tells us that being constantly connected is not only possible, but necessary and beneficial. The proliferation of in-vehicle technology that allows for hands-free calling reinforces this idea.

We need to dispel the myth of multitasking. Many of us think the key to having it all is doing it all - at the same time, without missing a beat. In reality, when we try to multitask we are virtually assured of missing something. When we ask our brains to focus on two cognitively demanding tasks at the same time, the brain will prioritize one above the other and shift between the two. Our brains do this so quickly that we don't recognize we are cognitively distracted and not performing either task to the best of our abilities.

Think about watching TV while listening to a book on tape. It would be impossible to recount the TV show's plot line or write an informed book report. Yet, we use the same kind of cognitive brain power when we drive or talk on a cell phone. If we wouldn't do something as inconsequential as watch TV while listening to a book on tape, why would we hold a phone conversation while performing the monumental task of driving?

Because our addiction tells us we can.

When we want to have it all and do it all, our brains respond accordingly. We disregard the numerous studies showing the dangers of cell phone conversations while driving. We opt instead to lean on the societal cues. Hands-free phone use is legal, so we believe it must be OK. Car manufacturers are building hands-free calling devices into vehicles, so we believe the systems must be safe to use.

Smokers did the same thing 40 years ago, relying on skewed studies, faulty logic and societal cues. Tobacco executives swore nicotine wasn't addictive despite evidence showing otherwise. Industry leaders decried the clear link between cancer and smoking. Magazines and TV stations ran advertisements claiming smoking helped control weight and relieve stress, among other health benefits.

No smoker today truly can claim ignorance. Laws and regulations have been passed; societal acceptance has waned. We know smoking can kill.

Overcoming addiction is incredibly difficult. Some smokers kick the habit when they understand the grave consequences. But far too many end up looking back and wishing they'd stopped. After all, they knew their addiction could be lethal.

Don't kid yourself. Drivers who use their cell phones assume a potentially life-ending risk, too. When you get behind the wheel, disengage. Turn off your phone. Disable the in-vehicle features that allow for hands-free calling. Don't let your addiction lead to irrevocable consequences.

No call, no text, no update is worth a human life, and justifying your addiction with "everyone else does it" or "it won't happen to me" is unacceptable.

• Deborah A.P. Hersman is president and CEO of the National Safety Council and the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.