THE BLOG
10/27/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

We Need to Consider Stronger Laws on Cellphone Use While Driving

Image Source via Getty Images

In the privacy of your own mind, answer this question honestly: How many times have you texted while driving in the last month? Sure, maybe you weren't actually moving when you hit send, but have you tried to sneak in a text at a red light? Or, during the "stop" phase in stop-and-go traffic? Have you quickly glanced down at your lap to read an email?

If you answered no, kudos. You fall into a minority of those that practice safe cellphone driving. Please keep doing what you are doing. If you answered yes, you are like millions of other Americans that are putting their own lives, their family's lives, and the lives of others, at an increased risk every time they get behind the wheel.

Distracted driving kills more than nine people and injures more than 1,150 people in the United States every day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies three main types of distraction:

  1. Visual: taking your eyes off the road;
  2. Manual: taking your hands of the wheel; and
  3. Cognitive: taking your mind off driving.

Texting is particularly dangerous because it combines all three types of distraction. In fact, a study out of Virginia Tech found that the risk of crashing is 23 times greater if a driver is text messaging versus driving undistracted.

Although the number of states that ban texting while driving has steadily increased over the past few years (now up to 39 states), the practice is still pervasive and the incidence of distracted driving fatalities and injuries continues to rise. In other words, laws that prohibit texting while driving are having their desired end effect. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that texting bans are associated with a measly 3 percent reduction in traffic fatalities.

Texting bans do not go far enough. For starters, in the eyes of everyday drivers, these laws are vague. Does texting at a red light count? What about reading a text, as opposed to sending one, or surfing the internet? Moreover, the power of texting bans pale in comparison to the tremendously addictive nature of cell phones. A growing number of behavioral psychology experts say that dopamine -- the same brain chemical that is discharged in conjunction with other addictive behaviors like drug use, smoking, and gambling -- is also released with cell phone use. Like a compulsive gambler at a slot machine, we obsessively pull down on our screens in hopes of being rewarded by the virtual hit that we crave (e.g., a new text message, Facebook "like," or retweet).

Scientists from Yale and University College London defined the features of an impulse control disorder as, "A failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or others. The individual feels an increasing sense of tension or arousal before committing the act and then experiences pleasure, gratification, or relief at the time of committing the act." We have an impulse control disorder when it comes to using our cellphones, and the business models of cellphone companies and the apps that are on our phones feed this impulse.

Telling a driver that he can keep his cellphone out, just do not check it might not be much different than telling a heroin addict that he can keep a loaded syringe in plain sight, just do not use it. Not even someone with the strongest willpower is likely to resist that kind of temptation. Alas, we constantly check, and think about checking, our cellphones.

In his recent book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, world renowned willpower expert Walter Mischel says that one of the best ways to exert self-control is to remove the object of desire from sight. Years of Mischel's research shows that although some temptation may still linger, there is a lot of truth in the expression out of sight, out of mind. This is why dieters have long been told to keep snacks in a drawer versus on their desk or counter-top.

With all that we know about the dangers of texting while driving, the science of addiction and compulsion, and self-control, it only makes sense that we consider laws that would ban cellphones from being visible altogether while one is driving. People could still talk on their phone while driving using a hands-free device (while this is still not as safe as driving completely undistracted, it is a lot safer than driving while using a cellphone with one's hands and eyes too). Other issues would also need to be addressed -- such as how to delineate between a driver's phone and a passenger's phone -- but should not be barriers to pursuing a "cellphone visibility" law.

Given political realities, it might take tens of thousands more deaths, and hundreds of thousands more injuries, before laws that prohibit cellphones from being visible while driving are seriously debated. In the interim, please consider implementing your own personal rule: keep your phone in the glove compartment.