I don’t need to tell you that texting while driving is a dangerous phenomenon that occurs at high rates . We have all seen it, and it is terrifying. We see another person who is clearly texting while driving next to us on the freeway or traveling through an intersection and we think “What if…” and shudder.
26% of teens in the U.S. say they have texted while driving, but this is not solely a teenage problem. In fact, statistics suggest that young adults are slightly more likely to text while driving than teens. However, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in the U.S. among youth ages 15-19, and because this blog is about youth, I want to highlight the unique processes underlying this dangerous behavior in teen drivers.
Most people believe that the problem is due to the fact that adolescents are less skilled than adults at estimating all types of risks, including the dangers of texting while driving. This belief is perpetuated by findings such as this: 77% of young drivers are very or somewhat confident that they can safely text while driving.
However, this statistic is somewhat misleading in that it suggests that the problem is that adolescents underestimate the risks of texting while driving, and therefore the solution is simply to educate them about the risks of this behavior. While this certainly might be the case for some individuals who text and drive, it is not consistent with research that indicates that adolescents are actually quite good at estimating risk (despite the fact that they indeed do take more risks!). So why this discrepancy between adolescents’ cognitions and behaviors? We can blame their brains…
The human brain is not fully developed until at least age 20, and during adolescence there are major changes occurring in the areas of brain involved in reward and decision-making. (For a more detailed explanation of these changes, read this fascinating article). Contrary to popular belief, adolescents are quite good at estimating risk, but their desire for rewards, especially immediate rewards (such as responding to the “ping” of an incoming text) is more powerful than at any other point in their development. As a result, adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behavior (such as texting while driving!), despite their knowledge of the risks. Ironically, adolescent brain research Laurence Steinberg made the following analogy: “The teenage brain is like a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake. With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash.”
This problem is exacerbated when teens are in the presence of friends. A compelling example of this is seen in a study conducted by Steinberg in which adolescent and adults participants were observed while playing a driving game. When they were alone, both adolescents and adults took equal risks (e.g., going through a yellow traffic light), but adolescents took significantly more risks compared to adults when they played the same game while a peer was watching. As Steinberg explains, the explanation lies in our powerful desire for social contact and acceptance, a desire that is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and is at its peak during adolescence.
In light of this research, consider this: 40% of all teens 12-17 say that they have been in a car while the driver was using a cell phone in a way that placed the passengers in danger (Pew Research, 2009), yet youth (especially males) ages 18-20 are less likely to speak up than older adults if they are a passenger in a car and the driver is texting. I suspect that the explanation for these statistics lies in the power of social rewards for teens, which makes them less likely to speak up even when they feel unsafe.
What can we do as a society and as parents? As always, there are no easy answers to this question. I suggest two broad solutions- one is an immediate solution for families and the other is a long-term societal solution.
Immediate solution = Reduce the temptation
Something that you can do today to increase the safety of everyone in your family is to reduce the temptation for reward seeking while driving. How? There are many apps available for all types of phones that deactivate specific phone features (such as text notifications) while driving. For youth who are horrified at the social consequences of not responding immediately to a text (that is an issue for another blog post!), there are even apps that will notify the sender that the receiver is driving and can’t currently respond. To increase buy-in, discuss with your adolescent the information in this post. Chances are, your child already has a realistic appraisal of the risks of texting and driving, and you may even discover that your teen is relieved to have an app to reduce the temptation.
Long-term solution = Change the norms
I was recently at a media conference and attended a lunch panel on this topic. Among the issues discussed was the widespread acceptance of texting while driving. In order for our society to see a significant decrease in this behavior, norms have to change. A parallel was drawn with driving while intoxicated; whereas once upon a time people would casually joke or brag about driving drunk, this is less likely to occur today because this behavior is now stigmatized by our society. We can’t rely on legislation or the automotive industry to be the solution; rather, we have to loudly proclaim, with both our words and our actions, our abhorrence of driving while in-text-icated to our friends and family. We are not there yet as a society, but the recent increase in PSA’s focused on texting while driving (Note: viewer discretion advised) have me hopeful that change is coming. I just hope it doesn’t get worse before it gets better. Please share this post– you could save a life!