The use of mobile devices while driving has emerged as one of the most serious threats to public safety. Both voice and text features are problematic, but texting is especially dangerous because of the attention it demands from our eyes, hands, fingers and brains. By texting I mean any context for mobile messaging, ranging from SMS to social networking sites. Despite laws, media campaigns and increased awareness, texting behind the wheel persists, raising the question of "why?" When my graduate student Joe Bayer and I started asking this question, we were surprised to only find a small handful of papers trying to explain this behavior. Most of the research was on how distracting it is. Our argument is that strategies to solve this problem should be explicitly informed, if not driven, by the core causes of it -- not just on how dangerous it is.
Although newly visible, texting while driving is not a new problem, so it is useful to approach it from a historical perspective. In the late 1990s and early 2000s mobile communication exploded as a new and revolutionary social resource for coordinating daily life and staying in touch with close friends and family members. Of course, the old analog cell phone had been around for years, but adoption was limited to a small cluster of business users (think Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's 1987 movie "Wall Street"). The digital incarnation of mobile technology made it much cheaper, smaller, lighter and able to support the critical mass who quickly hopped on board as mobile users. Even before they became "smart," mobile phones were already the fastest and most widely diffused communication technology on the planet (ever!). Smartphones, with apps and internet, were a game changer in making handsets less like phones and more like an everything device.
My colleague Rich Ling is a sociologist who argues that the "new thing" about mobile communication today is that it's "nothing new." What he means is that mobile communication has become so deeply embedded in our social structure that it is now a taken-for-granted social fact. Of course the technology and interface will continue to change and offer new things. But mobile communication as a practice has become rooted into the very foundation of social life. It is no longer something that is nice to have; it is now a basic expectation. It is no longer just your problem if you do not have a mobile phone -- it is a problem for others as well. Ling's argument is that, over time, expectations for accessibility have become universally heightened as a result of having virtually anytime-anywhere access to each other, not to mention information and other forms of content. The idea is that mobile communication, as something we (pretty much) all commonly do, has transformed from new and revolutionary into a taken-for-granted part of everyday life, much like clocks and automotive transportation.
As a sociologist, Rich Ling is focused on changes at the structural levels of society and social collectives. The embedding of mobile communication, as a basic expectation, occurs at the psychological level as well. Just as it has rooted deeply into social structure, so too has it rooted deeply into consciousness -even into the sub-conscious. I am not arguing that mobile communication is addictive, but I do believe that for many users it is habitual. In other words, sometimes people turn to their mobile devices without really thinking about it, like a reflex. We have all sorts of habits like this, and many of them are very useful. It makes life easier to be able to do routine, mundane things while focusing our attention on other matters. Like pulling out keys to open a door, mobile communication has become second nature. My guess is that you have, at one time or other, experienced a "phantom vibration" where you mistakenly feel or hear your mobile device vibrate. These phantom vibrations illustrate how tuned in we have become to the technology and the social expectations surrounding it.
Lately, I have been working with a team on a series of studies looking at the role of embeddedness, and specifically habit, in explaining texting behind the wheel. Without getting overly academic, I'll share some of the preliminary highlights. So far, habit (i.e., automatic behavior) stands out as a stronger predictor of texting while driving than more conscious considerations, like attitudes and norms. If this trend continues to hold in the research then strategies for addressing the problem of distracted driving should include a focus on countering the cognitive processes associated with forming, maintaining and breaking habits, while being sensitive to the ways they play out in the context of mobile communication.
Another thing we are noticing in this preliminary work is that users oftentimes experience a shift from low consciousness to very high consciousness while engaging with their mobile devices. After reflexively reaching for it, they sometimes become immersed in what they are doing, which has serious consequences for distracted driving. So there is need to understand both less conscious and more conscious engagements with the technology in addressing the question of why (some) people put themselves and others at risk while driving.
The good news is that the problem of distracted driving has gained a great deal of visibility in recent years. Initiatives (like this blog series) are heightening awareness of, and knowledge about, the risks of mobile phone use while driving. But we haven't turned the corner yet in getting people to stop doing it. Digging deeper into the fundamental reasons why it still happens might be one way of getting us there.
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.