Driving While Distracted: Why can't we ignore the pings?

The science behind why you can't put down your phone
The science behind why you can't put down your phone


    The science behind why you can't put down your phone


The science behind why you can't put down your phone 01:36

Story highlights

  • 98% of adult drivers know that texting is dangerous, but nearly half admit doing it
  • The pleasure we get from smartphones is similar to eating, drinking and sex, expert says

Check out the weeklong series "DWD: Driving While Distracted" online and tune in to the TV special on CNNgo.

(CNN)Most people will admit that texting, checking social media or playing a video game while driving isn't safe, and yet, some still do it. Why?

David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, says it has to do with the addictive nature of smartphones and how our brain instinctively responds to those pings, which signal an incoming text or social media update.
    Consider the case of Laura Maurer, an Iowa mother of two who pulled over to text a client and then pulled back onto the road. She tried to ignore the ping alerting her to an incoming text but ultimately couldn't resist it. By glancing at her phone, she ended up killing a 75-year-old farmer and grandfather on a tractor.
    "The reason why she answered that ping is because ... she felt compulsed or felt a compulsion in order to answer it," said Greenfield, who is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry for the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
    Our smartphones are affecting our brains without us even being aware of it. When we hear the ping of an incoming text, social media update or email, our brains get a hit of dopamine, a chemical that leads to an increase in arousal, energizing the reward circuitry in our brains. And that expectation of a reward -- Who's texting me? Who tagged me on social media? -- leads to a higher burst of dopamine than the reward itself.
    "The dopamine reward centers are the same centers that have to do with pleasure from eating, pleasure from sex and procreation, pleasure from drugs and alcohol," Greenfield said. "This reward circuitry is (as) old as time and if we didn't have it, we probably wouldn't exist as a species."
    David Greenfield is founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.
    When our brains are in that elevated dopamine state caused by the expectation of a text or status update, the activated brain reward center does something else. It shuts down access to another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, where most of our judgment and reasoning occurs.
    "The parts of the brain that say, 'OK, how important is this text? Is this text worth dying for? Is this text worth killing somebody else for?' " Greenfield said. "The answer, of course, logically, would be 'no,' but if you have less access to that part of your brain when you're in this state, which seems to be the case, then you're not really using your judgment."

    'I know I shouldn't be eating potato chips'

    Scott Tibbitts is an entrepreneur and founder of a technology called Groove, which he believes can help bring an end to distracted driving. Groove sends a signal to your mobile phone provider, alerting it to hold all texts and social media updates while you are driving, and prevents you from texting or posting on social media until your car is no longer moving.
    He compares the lure of the smartphone to having an open bag of potato chips in the car.
    "I know I shouldn't be eating potato chips, but just take a deep breath of that barbecue sauce," said Tibbitts, founder and chief executive officer of the Colorado-based startup Katasi. "Well, that's what the 'bing' is. The 'bing' is 'Oh, my gosh, this might be the text message from my daughter that says, "Dad, I need help," ' or from my wife saying I've got to get home, or from the business saying, 'Call this person right away.' And if that 'bing' happens, it is extraordinarily hard even for me to not want to just take a quick peek at the next stop light," he said. "It's a powerful force."
    Our brains also have a way of fooling us. Every time we look at social media or text or do anything else while behind the wheel and nothing bad happens, we think we will be safe if we do it again.
    Think about it along the lines of reinforcement theory, said Despina Stavrinos, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's distracted driving research lab.
    "So you're driving every day, sending text messages, and nothing happens. So it's reinforcing to you, 'Hey, I can do this. I am a pretty good multitasker,' " said Stavrinos, who is also an assistant professor in the school's department of psychology. "The problem is again (if) some unexpected hazard pops up and you're not able to respond appropriately, it could be fatal."

    'Multitasking is an illusion'

    While it may seem safer, using a phone hands-free can be just as dangerous. Using a handheld or hands-free device while driving, according to a study by the University of Utah (PDF), resulted in a slower reaction time than if you were legally drunk.
    Your brain on multitasking
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      Your brain on multitasking


    Your brain on multitasking 02:01
    "Multitasking is an illusion," said Greenfield, of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. "There have been numerous studies that have proven that this whole concept of multitasking is really a bit of an illusion. ... You really can't attend to things ... at multiple times."
    What's still hard to completely grasp is how so many of us do something so easily that we know is dangerous. In a 2013 survey of more than 1,000 adult drivers that was sponsored by AT&T, nearly all -- 98% -- said they know that texting while driving is wrong, but almost half admitted to doing it.
    "Why would you put something down that's pleasurable?" Greenfield asked. "Why would you not do something that lights up a part of your brain that's similar to when you have sex?"
    Willpower alone won't solve the problem, he says. It's the same as being on a diet and trying to avoid eating that piece of cake. Eventually, you will eat that cake, but in the case of distracted driving, one "bite" could be deadly.
    Jennifer Smith's mom was killed by a distracted driver in 2008.
    "Because of the addictive nature of all of these things, people lack the self-control," said Jennifer Smith, a mother of two who lost her own mother to a distracted driver in 2008. "I don't know what the answer is, because our brain is craving this. Our brain is wanting this more than anything else, and it just disregards everything we know.
    "It's like we need a mass education campaign, but I don't even think that's enough to beat out this reward system we're getting in our brain when we're like, 'Ooh, something's going on. I want to see what it is,' " said Smith, who founded the advocacy group StopDistractions.org.
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    Greenfield's message? "You gotta know that it's bigger than you. That's really the bottom line," he said. "We like to think we're the master of our destiny. ... That's not true."
    Coming Thursday: Could technology, which caused the problem, provide the ultimate solution?
    Can you ignore the pings on your phone when you are driving? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.