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Fooling Ourselves: Interpreting The (Non)Controversial Science of Distracted Driving

11/22/2013 10:40 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014
  • Paul Atchley Professor of Psychology, University of Kansas

When I speak on the science of distracted driving, the theme of my talk often centers on the idea that we fool ourselves. One of the most powerful lessons from a century of psychological research is that we are often unaware or completely wrong about our intuitions about how our brain works. Many functions of our brain exist to protect us from the uncomfortable reality that we are far more limited than we like to think we are.

For example, cognitive psychologists sometimes call visual perception the "grand illusion" because we think we constantly "see" a 180 degree, full-color, high definition, three-dimensional, moving panorama and all of the objects that surround us, when in fact our brain keeps track of only about four objects at any one time. Social psychologists consistently demonstrate that our attitudes are more prone to change to match our behaviors, than our behaviors changing to match our attitudes. And we like to think we are all rational decision makers, but it turns out that rational thought is often an afterthought. We often make quick, emotional, decisions first and then look for "evidence" to back up what we have already decided is true.

All of these ways of fooling ourselves play into the distracted driving problem. Even if you agree that driving while distracted is a major risk, if you have your phone in the car and it alerts you to an incoming message, you will probably at least take a quick look to see who is contacting you. And a quick look becomes a quick text ("Just at the stoplight..."), with a quick reply from the sender, and so on. I have met people in the attentive driving advocacy community that still carry their phones with them while they drive, and even they succumb like this.

We fool ourselves by thinking "I can do it safely" or "It is just a quick call" or "I am just reading a text-I am not texting." But as some of our work has shown, when drivers choose to drive distracted even though they know the risks, they start to perceive driving conditions as safer than they really are. The brain works to reconcile the dangerous behavior with knowledge about the risks of driving while distracted. It solves this mismatch by convincing the driver that driving on a busy freeway is no more difficult than driving on a quiet residential street.

Our tendency to change our perceptions to match our behaviors is one reason why some see the science of distracted driving as "controversial" when, in fact, it isn't. People who want to continue to use technology to stay connected while they drive are going to look for any evidence that it is okay to do so. Those selling the technologies these drivers want will say it is safe and downplay any science questioning that claim. Lawmakers, caught between a public that chafes at restrictions and industries that want to grow new business often find it difficult to legislate change and easier to say, "We just don't know enough about the problem, yet."

We are fooling ourselves again, just as psychologists and historians tell us we will. Do you remember the "controversies" surrounding a link between cancer and smoking, whether smoking is addictive, and if secondhand smoke is harmful? Smokers looked for evidence that smoking wasn't harmful, seven industry executives stood before Congress and swore that nicotine was not addictive despite knowing otherwise, and legislatures struggled to pass laws to reduce smoking in public places. While there was science of both side of these "debates", it turns out when you looked at the data, the greatest predictor of whether a study showed there was a problem with smoking was the source of funding. Publicly funded studies indicated there was a problem while industry funded studies failed to find an effect.

Even in the best case, there will always be some science on both sides of any issue. It is easy to run a flawed study and finding nothing, such as no clear link between smoking and cancer. Finding an effect is much more difficult. As a scientist, I ask three questions. First, is the science being supported by entities with a financial interest in that outcome? If so, then I am far more skeptical. Second, is the science reporting an effect or just failing to find an effect? It is easy to find nothing, so we tend to require a lot of evidence before we believe nothing is happening. Finally, when you take many studies together, what do they say? No one method or study is going to provide a definitive answer. But if you see the same answer from many different labs using many different methods, then you had better believe it.

And that is where we are right now. There is no controversy in the science of distracted driving. You need your brain to drive, and when we overload the brain with two very difficult tasks, driving and trying to communicate, driving loses. Scores of studies over decades of research show we scan the world less well, we think about our drive less carefully, we react more slowly, and we crash. These studies use a variety of methods, from laboratory techniques that measure attention and the eyes, to simulator and on-road studies of driver performance, to scans of the human brain. While there are a very few studies that fail to find a problem, they generally use the same research method or they come from industry and are not made public for peer review. On balance, even the most hardened driver who wants to use their smartphone while they drive must admit the science clearly shows the risks.

We need to stop fooling ourselves. Thousands of people are dying for the sake of calls and texts probably none of which are worth a human life.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.