Blame the brain: how to reduce dangerous driving habits
September 1, 2022
You’re driving home and suddenly you hear the ping of a text or notification vibration coming from your phone that’s laying on the passenger seat. Without thinking twice, you may have the desire to pick up your phone to see what’s going on or answer that text right away.Alert: that’s a distraction.
With Americans reaching for their phones nearly352 times a day, it’s no surprise that some of us are attached to our devices. That attachment to phones may be negatively influencing your life on and off the road.
In our April 2022 conversation with Ed Taube, lead instructor of the Arizona Chapter of the National Safety Council (ACNSC), we learned why the brain may be to blame for phone distractions. His insight also offers ways we can help prevent those distractions from happening in the first place.
Are Millennials and Gen Z are too attached to their phones?
Research from tech company Asurion found that U.S. adults are checking their phones once every two minutes and 43 seconds. From contactless payments, video chatting or answering work emails, our smartphones are at the center of it all.
Taube agrees. “In the last 20 years, a lot of our younger [Arizona] drivers have grown up with this technology that is now ingrained in their being. If I were to go to a 25-year-old and say I'm taking your phone away, you might as well tell them the world is ending. And it’s not a flaw of the 25-year-old. It is how we've been trained and how technology is now part of our being and we haven't adapted to a way to live without it. It is us. It's how we communicate. It's how we interact with the world,” he says.
But how did this attachment to technology evolve? Why do generations like Millennials and Gen Z feel lost without their phones? In an article written for The Atlantic, the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009 had an obvious effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a lagging economy. During that time, the number of Americans who owned a smartphone exceeded 50 percent.
With the first release of the ever-popular iPhone in 2007 and iPad in 2010, Millennials would become increasingly dependent on their devices—changing the nature of their social interactions and mental health.
“Technology is baked into the DNA of our generation."
– Emma Lembke, co-founder of LOG OFF
Fast forward to members of the Gen Z generation (those born between 1997 and 2012), who may be the first to go through life from birth to adulthood connected to a screen. It has in a way, shaped who they are and may become. If technology has become an extension of who Millenials and Gen Z generations are, how is it affecting the brain and our attention behind the wheel?
Your brain may be the biggest distraction
If technology has become an extension of who we are, it may be important to recognize how it’s changed the way we think, feel or behave—especially while driving. Now that we’ve established that many scientists agree that technology (phone, computers, tablets, televisions) can become addictive, we want to dive deeper into understanding why this attachment affects your brain, leading to distractions.
Taube at the ACNSC dives into the topic by saying, “Our brain is the most dangerous distraction of all. You cannot multitask with your brain and do several things well. The problem is, when your brain is distracted by a conversation, you're trying to paint a mental picture of that conversation.
“What is so important about that four second text that we are tempted to read it while we're driving? It should be so easy, but it's not because these are ingrained behaviors that once again, especially for people that grew up with technology in their life, are a part of their being and it's so hard to separate those behaviors.”
– Ed Taube, lead instructor of the ACNSC
And once the brain tries to paint a picture, you may not be able to drive very well. Studies have shown that when you engage in a remote conversation it activates a different part of your brain. And the part of your brain that's handling that conversation is a different part of the brain that handles the driving test—you can’t do them both well.
That's why the problem of distracted driving isn't your hands, it isn't necessarily your eyes, the problem is your brain. You have to be focused on the task of driving to be effective. And that's why eliminating that distraction is really the key.”
The ‘switch cost’ effect
Think about your phone placement before you drive. Is it in a phone cradle? Is it in your lap? Maybe it’s in the passenger seat, not completely out of reach.
With the sudden ping of a text tone or an illuminated screen highlighting a social media notification, that distraction behind the wheel becomes immediate because, as Taube suggests, “you’re now thinking about, “Who's calling me? What is it? Is it important?” All because we're stimulated by the notification tone [ping].”
According to scientists this phenomenon is called ‘switch cost’. One study presented at the 2017 meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, suggests that the interruptions from alerts to your smartphone could be altering your brain chemistry.
‘Switch cost’ occurs when there are interruptions, such as a phone notification, that distract our attention away from the task at hand (whether intentional or not)—costing time, brain power and focus. Plus, data from the same study shows that phone distractions may not be doing any favors to your mental health, either. The more attached or addicted people may be to our phones, the likelier we may be to experience anxiety, stress, insomnia and impulsivity. Those behaviors while driving are less than ideal, wouldn’t you agree?
So while we may claim to be excellent multitaskers, the reality is that when you’re behind the wheel, your brain is working to stay focused on the task at hand: driving safely. When you throw the distraction of a phone into the mix, things can get…messy.
Which leads us to this: if our phones are an essential part of our being, how can we train our brains to be less distracted by phone tones and notifications on the road?
How to break your relationship with your phone while driving
While not always easy, there are things you can do to help train your brain to be a little less dependent on your phone, especially while driving. Taube gives us additional insight into some ways we can stay more focused on the road.
“I could just tell you to put your phone away and you may do it once but after that, you're going to go back to your habits. But, if I give you some practical tips and tools that help you get past your brain saying, “I have to respond when I hear that text”, that may change your behavior behind the wheel.”
So where do we start?
First, take away that expectation. When you tell everyone, “I'm not going to reply,” that expectation is gone. So before you hit the road, you want to let everyone in your world know that you’re committed to safety while driving and will reach out when it’s safe.
Take a moment to think about how you’d react if you received that message. Would you respect that friend or family member and their commitment to driving safely? It may inspire you [the individual receiving the message] to think about your own driving behaviors and cause a ripple effect.
The next thing you have to do is either silence your phone or set it in Do Not Disturb mode, and put it out of reach. This removes the temptation because just hearing the tone of your phone triggers a response, doesn't it?
We're stimulated by the notification tone [ping]—so let's take that away, eliminate the sounds, turn it silent or off and put it out of reach.
The last thing we have to do, if we're so concerned about that timing of responding immediately, is to build a few minutes into our day to pull over, stop, check our messages or take care of business, put the phone away and go back to driving.
“You can easily build in time to do that. And your friends can go a little time without hearing from you. They really can. But we have to train them to do that.”
– Ed Taube, lead instructor of the ACNSC
To summarize, here are the steps you can take to train your brain to be less dependent and distracted by your phone while driving:
Take away the expectation of immediacy by letting others know you’re driving and committed to safety.
Turn your phone on silent or Do Not Disturb mode.
Put your phone away and out of reach.
If necessary, build a few minutes into your commute to pull over, answer your texts or emails before driving again.
With these helpful insights and tips, you can reduce the amount of stress you have behind the wheel and stay committed to your safety (and others).
HiRoad insurance rewards those who are less distracted
To the driver committed to commuting less distracted—Hi. If you’re a mindful driver, consider HiRoad.
As a behavior-based auto insurance company, HiRoad uses telematics technology to understand your driving habits and reward you for your good driving every month (up to 50% off your insurance bill every month). Those driving habits are driving without distractions, commuting at safe speeds and making smooth moves behind the wheel.
Start today. The next time you feel the urge to check your phone while driving—pause, take a deep breath, be in the moment and wait. Trust us, it can wait. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that you can be rewarded for waiting and staying focused on the road.
The information in this article was obtained from various sources not associated with HiRoad®. While we believe it to be reliable and accurate, we do not warrant the accuracy or reliability of the information. HiRoad is not responsible for, and does not endorse or approve, either implicitly or explicitly, the content of any third party sites that might be hyperlinked from this page. The information is not intended to replace manuals, instructions or information provided by a manufacturer or the advice of a qualified professional, or to affect coverage under any applicable insurance policy. These suggestions are not a complete list of every loss control measure. HiRoad makes no guarantees of results from use of this information.
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