They weren’t police, but when Beth Ebel and her team of investigators walked up and down intersections in six major counties this year, peering into car windows to count how many drivers were using their phones, some drivers dropped them. Hid them. Pretended they’d never held them.
“We in public health have this fallacy that if we tell people why they shouldn’t do things, they won’t do them,” said Ebel, a trauma doctor and director of the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Harborview Medical Center. “We’ve got to stop that.”
Today, 97.5 percent of the state’s drivers wear seat belts. When Ebel began doing research on seat-belt use in 2001, 83 percent did. One lesson from that hard-won battle: Statistics about risk and death are why we care about a problem. They’re not how we’re going to fix it.
It’s time to have an honest conversation about using our phones while we drive. We are miles away from understanding the behavior, and it’s killing us. Articles roll out new data about the dangers as if their impact is certain, but here’s the truth: Perfectly nice, well-intentioned people are picking up their phones in the car with the full knowledge that they are endangering themselves and everyone around them. That tinge of guilt you’re feeling? I feel it, too. Don’t shy away from it. Let’s confront it.
First, the fact sheet: A quarter of all car crashes involve cellphone use, according to estimates by the National Safety Council — 723,000 crashes so far this year. Texting on a handheld device while driving is illegal in 41 states; calling is banned in 12. Sixty-nine percent of Americans that the Centers for Disease Control surveyed in 2011 said they had made a handheld call from the car in the previous month. And though 98 percent of them said they knew it was wrong, half of adults surveyed by AT&T last year admitted they had texted while driving.
Here in Washington, where both texting and handheld calling are illegal, Ebel’s study of 7,800 drivers finally gave us field data. From what her investigators could see, 1 in 12 state drivers use their phones in some capacity while behind the wheel, and half of them are texting.
So how do we reconcile our presumed goodness with our apparent inability to stop doing a dangerous thing? We could say people who use their phones while they drive aren’t good at all. They’re horrible people — as bad as drunk drivers — we just haven’t come to that conclusion yet.
A stigma can do a lot to curb a harmful habit. The drop in smoking rates reflects that. But we’re not going to get there, I don’t think, until we get a better grip on what motivates the behavior and give each other more meaningful tools to fight it.
I talked with Edward Tenner, author of “Our Own Devices” and “Why Things Bite Back,” and something he mentioned hit home.
“People very often exaggerate the extent to which they’re on top of things. This is especially true of technology,” he said. “They think they have more influence over what’s happening than they really do.”
See if this sounds familiar: You’re driving along and your phone buzzes. You pick it up to see why, and only then, somewhere in the back of your mind, do you realize it’s in your hand. You know you should put it down, but a stoplight is just ahead, and responding to this one thing will only take a second.
It’s the slippery slope of smartphones. Ebel sees it, too. To her, our phones have an overwhelming Pavlovian power. As we talked I imagined one of Pavlov’s dogs in the driver’s seat of my car, a phone like a bell on the passenger seat. It’s an apt metaphor. Every call, email, text or Facebook message is a treat. When the screen lights up, we drool.
“Consider what we’ve done,” Ebel said. “You give a cellphone to an 11-year-old and every day, 10 times a day, 50 times a day, that phone goes off, that bell rings, you look at it, reward. We classically condition ourselves. Then you tell me when that phone goes off in the car you’re not going to answer it?
“As much as we tell ourselves these are conscious decisions, they’re not.”
Of course, we are not driving, drooling, helplessly conditioned dogs, though smartphone designers might like to think of us that way from time to time. We are people. We are each responsible for finding strategies that work for us, for the sake of everyone around us, and that’s that. As someone on the front lines of the fight, Ebel knows that better than anyone.
Many of you don’t have this problem at all. But I’ll bet you know someone who does, even if you never talk about it. For those who still struggle, thinking we have more control than we do might be part of the holdup. Apps exist that silence new calls and even auto-respond to text messages with a note that you’re driving when they detect you’re on the move. They’re limited by the fact that they can’t distinguish between a driver and a passenger, but they’re at least a start.
I can see a not-too-distant future when putting your phone on a “do not disturb” setting becomes as important to the beginning of a car ride as buckling your seat belt. We’re going to need something like that to become normal before this problem stops getting worse and starts getting better.
Our phones can be our most dangerous passengers. Until each of us realizes that, we won’t really be safe.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.