We’ve all seen the safety campaigns, read about a tragic news story or witnessed an incident. We know texting and driving is dangerous and yet each year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every day, more than 1,000 people are injured and nine people are killed as a result of this negligent act. So why do we keep doing it?
In order to answer this question, we have to consider two key pieces of neurobiology at work here. The first is the chemical response that occurs in our brains every time we hear an alert on our phones. The second piece is how we assess risk in our day-to-day lives. While these two pieces are by no means an excuse for negligence, they do offer a glimpse into “the why” we do things, which could go a long way to helping people truly stop texting and driving.
Dopamine: Friend or foe?
One of the biggest reasons we can’t put down the phone when driving is because of a chemical reaction that occurs in our brains every time we hear our phones buzz, ping, ding or alert us in any number of ways.
As David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, explains in an August 2016 article for CNN Health, each time we receive an alert on our phones, “our brains get a hit of dopamine, a chemical that leads to an increase in arousal, energizing the reward circuitry in our brains.”
If we sneak a peek at our phones and see a notification that makes us happy — whether it be a text from a loved one or news that our favorite sports team just won a big game — guess what? Another hit of dopamine, which now makes the compulsion to look at our phones even stronger.
As the article goes on to explain, however, there’s more going on in our brains than just this feel-good response.
Risk assessment: Right decision or wrong choice?
Another deciding factor in whether we will text and drive has to do with how we assess risk in our day to day lives.
As a December 2017 article for TIME illustrates, we use common sense and experience to dictate our actions. We might know distracted driving is dangerous; but if our own texting and driving experiences never produce an accident, we begin to falsely believe the behavior is no longer dangerous.
Even if we wanted to use logic to rationalize our actions and choose the safer option, dopamine once again is working against us. That’s because, aside from making us feel good, it does something else to our brains: it shuts down access to the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain crucial to logic, judgment and reason.
Technology may offer the solution
Despite numerous safety campaigns over the last 10 years that call attention to the dangers of distracted driving, neurobiology — specifically dopamine — could be the culprit behind why we can’t simply listen to reason and put down the phone.
If this is the case, technology may offer us the best solution, specifically in the form of apps that withhold alerts and notifications from appearing on our phones while we are driving. No alerts, no hit of dopamine, which means our prefrontal cortex is left to do what it does best: assess and realize just how truly dangerous distracted driving is.