< Driven to Do Something


Friday, October 02, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: This week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held a two-day summit on the dangers of distracted driving. Thursday, he announced that all federal employees will be forbidden to text while driving. The fact is we've known about the dangers for a while now. Studies have shown that talking on the phone while driving, whether you’re holding the phone to your ear or not, is just as dangerous as driving drunk. Texting and emailing is even more dangerous, but only 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, have banned texting while driving and only seven, plus D.C., ban talking on handheld phones. The summit this week offers some hope that lawmakers are actually getting serious about the problem, but why now? Matt Richtel, who has reported on distracted driving for The New York Times, points to a recent American Automobile Association study that found that more than 35 percent of drivers believe the roads are more dangerous today than they were five years ago.

MATT RICHTEL: The reason I think that number is so compelling is in the last five years more antilock brakes, more airbags, more hundreds of millions, if not billions, to make roads safer, and yet, people are finding the roads less safe.

BOB GARFIELD: And yet, it isn't that easy for legislatures to pass anti-texting laws. Why is that?

MATT RICHTEL: It’s not easy for us to disconnect from our devices. This is both texting and talking while behind the wheel. You have folks who feel a sense of urgency to respond immediately to bosses, friends, social pressure, business pressure, so they don't want to disconnect from their devices. And legislators feel that populace message, and they also often are talking on the phone themselves a lot.

BOB GARFIELD: And what about the telecom industry? They are not necessarily the biggest fans of regulation. How much of a factor has their lobbying been?

MATT RICHTEL: I think their lobbying, in places, has been very potent. The biggest window into this arguably is the state of California, where from 2001 to 2005 heavy lobbying by the cell phone industry effectively killed legislation that would have required Californians to use headsets while they talk in cars. That bill eventually passed, but the way the senator who proposed that bill and, and pushed for it explained it to me, the industry lobbied very hard and made all kinds of claims, even to the point of saying that if there was a law forcing people to wear headsets, it would permit police to have an excuse to go after minority drivers who were not wearing headsets.

BOB GARFIELD: You mean they played the race card in an anti-cell phone debate?

MATT RICHTEL: They played the race card, yes. But things have changed for the industry. The Cell Phone Industry Association in January said that it no longer opposes such legislation. Here’s what the skeptics will say. The economics have changed for the cell phone industry. At one time, every minute that someone was on the road and paying for cell phone service was really important to the bottom line of the cell phone companies. Now we pay for our minutes in big buckets. So, you know, I don't know, did the cell phone industry say, we're worried about safety, did their economics change? I don't know. I don't think we'll ever know the answer to that completely.

BOB GARFIELD: Yes, so I have myself screamed at other drivers, saying, why don't you just get off the damn phone because they've done something reckless or inattentive. It hasn't altered my own car phone behavior. I'm still a kind of repeat offender. There’s something about an incoming email that is irresistible. Are there any explanations for human behavior along these lines?

MATT RICHTEL: On the psychological end, there is something called intermittent reinforcement, and that’s this idea that if you put a rat in a device where a food pellet only comes out of a hole periodically, the rat’s going to be checking that hole all the time ‘cause it never knows when that food is available. Similarly, with our email and phone, most of the stuff we get is plainly unimportant; I think we could probably all stipulate to that. But occasionally something really important comes along. So what does that do? It randomly reinforces us to be checking all the time. But there’s also a physiological piece that I find extremely interesting, and that says that when you check your device, you basically get the equivalent of a dopamine squirt. Well, if you get that little candy when you check your email and you check your phone, in its absence you start to feel bored. So, la-dee-dah, you’re driving down the road and you’re just doing this kind of task that seems rote; you start to feel that itch, you start to feel that boredom. Suddenly you want a dopamine squirt. You send a text, which basically sets you up to get a response, which enables you to then send a response, or you make a phone call.

BOB GARFIELD: Is this a not-in-my-backyard kind of phenomenon? I, I want everybody else to get off their cell phone but I don't want them to take away mine?

MATT RICHTEL: There’s no question that’s the case. And you look at the polls and, you know, something like 90 percent of drivers at once say, I'm a great driver, and some large portion of those folks regularly talk on the phone while driving or text while driving, and also say, this is tantamount to drunk driving when someone else does it.

BOB GARFIELD: Yeah well, that’s because those other jerks, you know, can't drive while using their phones.


BOB GARFIELD: You know, I can!

MATT RICHTEL: [LAUGHS] I know you can. You actually – it turns out we've done research, and you’re the guy.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Matt, thank you very much.

MATT RICHTEL: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Matt Richtel covers technology and telecommunications for The New York Times.