This could be my last day on Earth, I think to myself.
I am sitting in the passenger seat of a 2001 Chevy Blazer that is accelerating down Route 3 toward Cape Cod at a leisurely 95 miles per hour. My hand has a death grip on the door handle as the chassis of the car vibrates dangerously, feeling more like Apollo 13 than an automobile. The road around us seems littered not with other cars, but with brief flashes of color that vanish past us before one can even blink.
My best friend, Jonathan Whittall, is entirely unconcerned with the other drivers and, it seems, with the road itself. His eyes glance up only momentarily to ensure that we are not mid-accident, before returning to his phone. He flattens his mouth into a grim smile and raises his eyebrows before snapping a photo of himself, capturing a completely casual demeanor in the face of certain destruction. He is Snapchatting a girl he recently met on the dating app Tinder, and he assures me that she is “awesome.”
“I can only imagine.” I manage a weak smile as we change lanes without a blinker, weaving in between two vehicles and startling the middle-aged man behind us, who promptly lays on his horn. Jon ignores him, as he is now sending a text message that I can only assume is worth both of our lives. I exhale heavily and take it upon myself to look in our mirrors, where I spot an 18- wheeler barreling up on our left. “Jon, if you’re going to romance someone on Snapchat, can you keep it under 70?”
“Relax, we’re fine,” Jon says. “I’ve been around the block a few times.”
I cringe as this nugget of wisdom exits the mouth of a man three years older than me. While Jon waxes poetic about life experience, the truck on our left draws even with us, and I feel a prickle on anxiety on the back of my neck as we are cast into the truck’s shadow. Jon has returned to his phone, and it falls to me to notice that the massive truck, completely oblivious to us, has begun to cross into our lane. It is clear that neither Jon nor the truck driver are aware of the situation, and that we are moments away from what will inevitably be a fiery death.
“Jon!” My friend reacts instinctually to the panic in my voice, dropping his phone and moving his hands to the wheel as he sees the truck invading our territory. With a sharp yank of the wheel, Jon pulls us off of the side of the road, and we skid violently to a stop as dust swirls up around us. The truck rumbles past, blissfully unaware of the lives it so very nearly extinguished. There is a period of silence as we catch our breaths and collect ourselves. Finally, we pull back onto the road and continue our journey. Jon’s phone remains untouched for the rest of the trip.
Jon was fortunate to avoid harm. However, this incident reflects a concerning trend in American culture: the increasing use of technology while operating vehicles. As cellular devices are growing more sophisticated and addressing more of our everyday social needs, it is also becoming more difficult to put them down for any length of time, even for necessary tasks such as driving.
Although distracted driving has long existed in the form of activities such as eating, interacting with passengers or similar, the rapid advances in technology have quickly made it a leading distraction in motor vehicles. It is estimated that at any given moment, up to 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or a similar form of technology while driving.
With the rise in accidents due to distracted driving, there has also been a rise in injuries and fatalities. In 2014 it was found that 3,179 people were killed due to distracted driving, and another 431,000 were injured. Of all drivers 15 to 19 years old involved in fatal crashes, 10% were reported as distracted. Furthermore, although drivers in their 20s make up 23% of drivers in all fatal crashes, they also make up 38% of drivers using their cell phones when involved in those crashes.
A survey conducted in May of 2014 by AT&T found that of the drivers asked, 98% percent of those who text daily and drive regularly are aware of the dangers involved. Despite this, 75% of these same drivers admitted to texting while driving regardless. In addition, a similar survey conducted on the Brockton campus at Massasoit Community College, found that 40% of the students surveyed admitted to using technology while driving that very day.
Brett Hudson, a 26-year-old teacher in Michigan, uses his phone extensively for GPS and music while driving, and has taken steps to ensure that the process is as hands-free as possible. Still, he acknowledges that in the moments when it is necessary to use the device, multitasking becomes an issue.
“I’ve noticed that when I do have to touch the phone,” he told the Boston Globe, “my brain becomes so totally focused, even in that short period of time, and I don’t really remember what’s happening on the road in those four or five seconds.”
Hudson’s self-admitted five seconds, which also happens to be the average length of time one’s eyes are off the road when answering a text, is enough time to travel the length of a football field when driving at 55mph.
The real question is this: if people are aware that it is dangerous to use a cell phone while driving, why would they continue to do it regardless? The answer is complex. After all, in a time where the health risks of obesity and smoking are well-known, both continue to be serious problems in this country. Steven Seiler, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Tennessee Technological University, decided to conduct a study in order to find out.
Seiler’s research uncovered a social and cultural aspect to texting and driving that plays a crucial role in its growing prevalence. Daily life is largely driven by culture. In America, obesity becomes acceptable as more people around us gain weight. If a child grows up surrounded by smokers, he or she is more likely to consider smoking normal and acceptable. In this case, as
more people are exposed to texting and driving through family members and friends with no negative effects, the act becomes normalized rather than stigmatized.
“Commonsensically, observing people engaging in dangerous driving behaviors would deter people from texting while driving,” Seiler wrote in his report. “However, sociologically, riding with others who engage in such behaviors without consequence contributes to a culture of multitasking while driving.”
David Greenfield, a professor at the University of Connecticut Medical School, believes that another part of the problem lies with the unwillingness of people to accept their role in the epidemic, which is the only way that progress can be made to curb reckless use of technology behind the wheel.
“In order to really include oneself in a group that has a problem with texting and driving, they have to admit their own fallibility, and we’re loath to do that,” Greenfield said.
Greenfield describes cellphones as setting off similar chemical reactions to slot machines in the body. The brain grows excited when a person receives a text message, resulting in the release of dopamine, the chemical that controls the mind’s pleasure and rewards center. This chemical is also largely responsible for addictions. If the message is from a significant other or someone similarly appealing, the resulting dopamine rush is even more intense, suggesting that people are becoming unable to separate themselves from their phones.
AT&T’s study, which Greenfield spearheaded, also asked drivers why they felt the need to respond to messages despite driving at the time. Answers were relatively diverse, with 43% responding that they wished to stay connected to friends and family, and 30% also saying that using their phone is purely out of habit. Many drivers were also worried about missing something potentially important, with 27% of surveyed drivers feeling that they are expected by others to answer promptly. Interestingly, 14% of those surveyed described an active feeling of anxiety when unable to respond immediately.
Ben Weeks, a student at Massasoit who has admitted to using his phone while driving, agrees with all of these reasons.
“It’s not something I ever really thought about, but they all make sense,” he said. “I guess there’s always this feeling that if you don’t respond right now, you’re going to miss an invite somewhere or someone will have an important question and you won’t answer it in time.”
Although Weeks has never been involved in a serious accident due to using technology, he says that he has been rear-ended by someone who was texting and driving.
“I was just stopping at a red light, so fortunately it wasn’t anything serious,” Weeks said.
In the case of Weeks and Jon Whittall, it may not have been anything serious this time. But thousands of drivers each year cannot consider themselves so lucky. If things are going to change, words need to be turned into actions.
“There’s a huge discrepancy between attitude and behavior,” said Greenfield. “There’s that schism between what we believe and then what we do.”
The solution begins on the individual level. By making a commitment not to drive distracted, and to not allow friends and loved ones to do the same, you can make a difference in your
community, no matter how small. Positive changes will only follow. We live in a world where our cellphones allow us to be connected to each other all day, every day, but maybe while driving it’s okay to put the phone down and put a higher value on human life.