by Contributor

(Dec. 17, 2016) — Whether it’s talking, texting, or swiping an app, we seem to have become a culture inseparable from our smartphones. We expect, and often feel expected, to remain in constant connection. And while the overwhelming majority of the US has passed laws banning texting while driving, it’s something that we see every day, and according to recent surveys, probably even do ourselves. We still do it even though there will be nearly six million car crashes this year, with phone-related distraction being a contributing factor in an estimated 20% of those crashes, according to date from the National Safety Council.

So why are we still trying to multitask on the road?

We want it now…

In a world so filled with media and electronics that we typically have multiple things vying for our attention, there are those in the psychological community who think that we’ve actually become quite expecting of, not just the constant connection that smart devices offer, but the constant entertainment. Let’s face it: driving somewhere isn’t usually as engaging as being somewhere. And that blinking notification could be anything. It could be something we’re expecting or just the typical dopamine release of getting a few more likes on our recent Facebook post. The problem is that, like Veruca Salt, we want it now. And we’re already starting to rationalize just how short a time we’ll be distracting ourselves by checking it. The average, according to a recent study, is a troubling 4.6 seconds. I say troubling because I’ve never thought to myself “I’m going to take my eyes off the road, count to five seconds, and that’s totally OK.” And most people probably don’t. But if we get that burning desire to reply, it will only take longer — more than enough time for something to go wrong.

And we think we’re good at it.

Nobody thinks that a text message is more important than the life of a fellow driver. What we are thinking is that we can multitask, and what’s more is that we’re often thinking that we can do this better than other people. The problem is that, while the human brain is a marvelous thing, the idea of multitasking as we tend to think of it is pure fantasy. We can divide our attention, and we can shift our focus between multiple things, but we can’t really focus on the road at the same time we’re texting. We are simply adept at convincing ourselves that we can. Add a little bit of otherwise healthy self-esteem and some all-too-natural rationalization, and nearly anyone can convince themselves that they won’t be the one to pick up their cellphone and cause a car accident.

Ok, but just how serious is texting while driving?

Since we started collecting data on automobile accidents around the turn of the 20th century, the biggest drivers of the trend in fatalities have been the total amount of miles driven by motorists and the overall trend towards safer cars and fewer motorist deaths. However, the National Safety Council has recently released startling data indicating that 2015 saw the biggest percentage increase in traffic deaths the US has seen in 50 years. According to Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC, “We don’t know with a lot of detail what the causality is,” and additional information is still being collected and analyzed about 2015’s activities. However, past research has indicated that alcohol, speed, and distracted drivers are the three major causes of fatal crashes — with distractions in the car contributing in an estimated 26% of cases and as many as 9,000 deaths.

As alarming as this should be, the burden of distracted driving doesn’t end there. There are over four million injuries associated with these car accidents. While the majority of these may be minor, there are many people who suffer lasting harm — people whose lives will come to a halt as their worlds become one of navigating their medical care and insurance claims. Many will need the help of a personal injury attorney so they can get their lives back on track and get the care they need. In fact, the total cost in 2015, including medical expenses, lost wages and productivity, and property damage is estimated to be roughly $152 billion.

It might not seem terribly irresponsible to think that out of 318 million people, you weren’t likely to be involved in one of the 35,000 fatalities, but the reality is that there were over six million other accidents. And when it comes to a habit like texting and driving, even if you haven’t already said to yourself that you’re a better driver than six million other people, you’re still rolling the dice every time you do it.

So what do we do?

Frankly, we need to keep a couple of things in mind. First being that the average commute, according to the US Census Bureau, is 25.4 minutes. The only game-changing text that’s going to come in during that time is the one that causes a wreck. Unless you’re an on-duty first-responder, you’re really not getting any life-or-death calls on that cell phone. Second, know that the people who get into car accidents due to cellular distractions tend to make the same generalizations about how quickly they can work their phone and how good they are at multitasking. And they tend to be equally wrong.

But also remember that living in the age of smartphones also means that there’s probably an app for that — and there are, in fact, many apps for keeping us from pulling out our phones at the wrong time. There are auto-reply apps that can let people who text us know that we’re on the road and that we’ll get back to them, there are apps that will lock down our phones and prevent us from receiving notifications, there are even apps with a point system that allow you to earn discounts with participating vendors while your car is in motion — as long as you aren’t using it. Some of these apps may even be available through your carrier.

The bottom line is that when it comes to accidents caused by smartphone-distracted drivers, the power is all in our hands.

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