Distracted Driving Awareness: Curbing the Power of Smartphones

Distracted Driving Awareness: Curbing the Power of Smartphones

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a research psychologist and educator at California State University,
Dominguez Hills, has called the smartphone “a major game changer in our lack of attention.” Photo by Gary Kuwahara

We don’t need Distracted Driving Awareness Month to know that the impacts of distracted driving can be lifelong. One listen to the poignant stories of those who have lost loved ones to distracted driving hammers the point home.

And yet, the fatal statistics keep trending upward. In an interview with Lytx last year, National Safety Council statistician Ken Kolosh revealed that in 2015 and 2016, the U.S. experienced yearly increases exceeding 6 percent in motor vehicle fatalities, the largest two-year percentage increase in deaths in 53 years. Reversing that trend starts with curtailing distracted driving, Kolosh said.

In fact, according to Lytx data, a person is seven times more likely to have a collision when reaching for a device, and 23 times more likely to have a collision when texting.

While smartphones aren’t the only culprit in the distracted driving space (navigation devices, loose objects and eating play a role), their unique power propels the distracted driving problem, said Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a research psychologist and educator at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Rosen, the author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, discussed Americans’ obsession with technology on 60 Minutes last spring. Calling the smartphone “the biggest driving force to distract us,” Rosen talks with Lytx about why this gadget drives distraction so much—while Lytx’s Gary Johnson joins Rosen in offering tips on what fleets can do to curb distraction at the wheel.

The Power of Smartphones Can Fuel Distracted Driving

Well before smartphones became popular in the early 2000s, people had an “implicit agreement that they would return calls when they could,” Rosen said. But as email, cell phones, and texting became more common, the expectation of a timely reply ramped up, too.

Social media fueled people’s craving for immediate feedback even more, Rosen said. And though smartphones are useful for several things, they distract us for three key reasons:

  1. We thrive on feeling connected, and smartphones offer connectivity. “Smartphones have turned us into information-foraging animals,” Rosen said. “We’re like animals foraging for food, but we’re foraging for information instead.” By offering a combination of information and connectivity to our social networks, smartphones “have everything we live for,” Rosen said.

  2. Smartphones consume our attention. That’s fine if we have nothing else to do, but when there’s work to be done (such as commercial driving), smartphones hinder one’s ability to focus. In writing The Distracted Mind, Rosen learned that unless a task is very simple, human beings can’t perform two tasks at once. “When we try to focus on two things at the same time, it takes us longer to do them both and adds a lot of stress,” he said. Not to mention, checking your phone requires removing your eyes from the road.

  3. Checking in is a compulsion. Rosen emphasized people’s heavy reliance on smartphones doesn’t constitute an addiction. Rather, it’s a compulsion. “If it were an addiction, we’d enjoy it,” he said. “But most of us don’t enjoy it. When logging in to social media, most people actually get a feeling of relief—like ‘I’ve checked in and everything’s cool.’ They can check it off their list.”

    Propelling that compulsion is the “ding” a smartphone produces. Though it may seem benign, Rosen has found that it actually raises anxiety levels. “It’s very difficult to be doing anything, including driving, and have your smartphone ding,” Rosen said. “On 60 Minutes, every time my colleague Dr. Nancy Cheever texted anchor Anderson Cooper, his arousal spiked. That shows that when a smartphone dings, people will be drawn to it, and it detracts their attention from the task at hand.”

So what can commercial safety managers do to curb distracted driving, considering the power that smartphones have on us? Rosen and Lytx Director of Risk and Compliance Gary Johnson make these suggestions:

  1. Turn the smartphone off or use the “Do Not Disturb” setting while driving. “It’s very difficult to be driving and have your smartphone ding every time a text comes through,” Rosen said. “By turning the phone off or the volume down, you increase your chances of putting your attention where it needs to be—on driving.”

  2. Invest in video telematics such as the Lytx DriveCam® safety program. Fleets that have a distracted driving problem among drivers often don’t even know it until they’ve installed a program such as the DriveCam®safety program, Johnson said. Such safety technologies give fleets visibility into what’s really happening with their drivers, he added. Just as important, the DriveCam safety program empowers companies to coach drivers who are distracted at the wheel, helping them improve while keeping their jobs.

    A person driving while dialing a smartphone is six times more likely to be involved in a collision than someone who’s not, as indicated by Lytx data. “By adopting video telematics technology, you obtain the tools to address distracted driving behaviors,” Johnson said. “They’re behaviors that put not only the company at risk, but especially the driver.”

    Even a routine call by a dispatcher can tempt drivers to answer the phone while driving, despite whether company policy or state law forbids it. “Sure, many state laws forbid using a cell phone while driving, but if a phone’s in the vehicle, that temptation is always there,” Johnson said. “The DriveCam safety program can show, through concrete video, whether or not your policies are being followed and enforced.”

  3. Train your drivers to take a smartphone break. It’s called a “technology break,” said Rosen, who suggests fleet managers work with their drivers to reduce their dependence on smartphones. “The best thing you could do for your drivers is to help behaviorally train them not to check in while they’re driving,” he said. “Getting the phones out of the vehicle is a good place to start.”

    In their free time, drivers can work to wean themselves from their smartphones by checking it at intervals farther and farther apart, Rosen added.

  4. Reframe the sensation of anxiety as “excitement.” The chemicals that make you feel anxious are really just arousal chemicals, Rosen said. “We can just as easily reinterpret them as excitement, and then people won’t feel the need to check in.” Rosen also suggests drivers listen to music, podcasts or audiobooks while they drive to get their minds off their smartphones. “Audio stimuli bring up a whole new pleasure system in your brain that isn’t based on anxiety,” he said. “They’re a distraction from the distraction.”

    Ultimately, Johnson said, it’s family members who are driving on the road every day. “So why would you put families at risk by not addressing this behavior?”

If you’re looking to address distracted driving in your fleet, you might be interested in the ActiveVision service®. Paired with the DriveCam safety program, the ActiveVision service enhancement can help you detect drowsy and distracted driving, and ultimately help you proactively address risky driving behavior.

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