Although it may rattle our enlightened thinking, severe punishment instead of education may be the key to preventing text and driving.
Experts suggest that both are needed but in succession: First, strong punishment to change the behavior followed by education to sustain it. Those who study how we have changed dangerous health behaviors point to three public health success stories – seatbelt usage, smoking cessation and even drunk driving – to bolster their belief that punishment works best.
“We know from NETS data, the Network of Employer for Traffic Safety, that companies that have rules and punishments in place, have fleets that are about twice as safe as the ones that don’t,” says Paul Atchley, Ph.D. who studies distracted driving. He is associate dean, professor, Department of Psychology at the University of Kansas.
The stakes are huge. Each day in the United States, approximately 9 people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Sending or reading a text message takes your eyes off the road for about 5 seconds, long enough to cover a football field while driving at 55 mph. And, 34% of drivers self-report that they text and drive.
“Education has never solved any of those problems. We’ve never successfully educated towards a better public health,” Atchley said.“The first drunk driving law, for example, went into effect in 1917, but it wasn’t until Candace Lightner lost her 13-year old daughter to a three-time convicted drunk driver that Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded  and we started to hold legislator’s feet to the fire for the laws that were already on the books. The bottom line is in order to change behavior, you have to actually change behaviors, not attitudes. Attitudes will shift later.
"Seatbelts are a good example. There was a 20% adoption rate when seatbelts started. It wasn’t until companies started requiring that their employees wear seatbelts that you started to see those adoption rates go up. The big change was when we had ‘Click-It-Or-Ticket’ campaigns. Then you saw the difference in states in terms of adoption rates for states that have primary versus secondary seatbelt laws. The states where you can get pulled over if you're not wearing your seatbelt and just for that, you have much higher adoption rates than states where it’s a secondary offense.”
As for smoking, Atchley notes that we didn’t see a lower rate of smokers until it was made illegal in restaurants, workplaces, airplanes, even outside in some areas. More punishments came from legislatures that raised taxes. The average pack of cigarettes costs over $5.50 in most states and over $10 in places like New York and Illinois.
Atchley notes that distracted driving is particularly difficult to curb because phone use, like cigarette smoking, can be addictive, something that designers (of both products) have purposely built in.
“Smart people in Silicon Valley have successfully engineered these devices to encourage users to constantly pay attention to them," he said. "The second thing is that when you're driving, the area of your brain that you would use to exhibit willpower and ignore the device – the prefrontal cortex - is being used by the driving task. Your willpower to ignore this otherwise very compelling device is tapped out. What we see is even for people who know better, if the device is in the car with them and that signal happens to let them know that there's something going on, this chain of bad behavior starts where they look at it and pick it up, and suddenly they find themselves engaging with it. Once this potentially addictive device is in the car with you, it’s game over.”
Atchley says: “Distracted driving won't just go away easily, because, like with alcohol or smoking, about ten percent of people are addicted to it. There's a large portion of people who are compelled by their phone and until we actually reduce that behavior through a series of enforcement, it’s not going to change. Education will not solve this problem.”
David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine agrees that punishment followed by education works best but there are other steps in the process.
One is technology based. “There are automatic applications that are hardwired into the phone [to prevent texting while behind the wheel]. I don't mean software that is controllable by the user, but technology that already exists. It's just not switched on. The smartphone manufacturers have been reluctant to activate that. We don't really know why, although I think you could suppose why.” This technology, Greenfield says, would allow others in the car to use their phones.
Greenfield notes: “Most of us, in spite of the fact that we know it's dangerous, and that people die and people are hurt, will still do this behavior. So, the education has to be on the neurobiology and the addiction of the devices, because that's really not happened in a large, public forum yet. It would be my preference that when you pick up your phone – I don't mean when you turn it on, but when you pick it up – it activates something that flashes on the screen that lets you know that the use of this device is both dangerous while driving, as well as addictive. Every time you lift it up you'll see that image for a second or two. That's very compelling over a long period of time.”
He adds: “The other thing is education of the law enforcement community because they really don't understand how to detect [this behavior], and how to manage it.”
Last, he suggests, is a vibrant, nationwide, grassroots effort. “The number of deaths due to distracted driving has exceeded alcohol, but there hasn't been a really, well-organized grassroots effort. There has been on a state-by-state basis, but not nationally, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We need to see that. Ultimately that's really what's going to put pressure for both enforced laws and on people to get more education.”