Teens Who Text and Drive: The Staggering Stats and the Myth and Habit Behind Them

Posted on October 5th, 2012, 0 Comments

Last week I heard a mother talk about teens who text and drive. There were tears in her voice as she told why she cared so much about this issue. Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Alex, was killed in a rollover accident on her way to school. Alex was texting while driving. (You can learn more about this family’s story here.)

The staggering stats:

• Texting while driving causes 25% of all accidents, totaling 1.6 million crashes and resulting in 333,000 injuries per year.

• Texting delays a driver’s reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol concentration of .16 – double the legal limit of .08. And a driver who is texting is 6 times more likely than a drunk driver to be in an accident.

• Teens admit they regularly text while driving. In a recent CDC national survey of more than 15,000 high school students, 1 in 3 said that they had texted or emailed while driving. In a just released survey by State Farm, the numbers were even higher – 57% of teens with driver’s licenses admitted to texting while driving.

• Distracted driving deaths are most common in teens. Every day, texting while driving causes 11 teen deaths.

Obviously, this isn’t just a teen issue. Many adults text while driving too, and, like teens, adults also lose focus on the road when they do. But because of their inexperience at driving, teens are already more susceptible to accidents than adults. Texting and the growing menu of similar distractions make the number of teen deaths and life-altering accidents staggering – heartbreakingly so.

We must help our teens make wiser, safer decisions. And to do this, we’re going to have to deal with both a myth and a habit.

The myth about multitasking:

Teens tend to view texting while driving as simply doing two things at once. And most of them pride themselves on their ability to multitask. But while most teens (and many adults) like to think they can multitask, cognitive research suggests that when people think they are doing two things at once, what they’re really doing is switching very rapidly from one task to another. That means the brain has to pick and choose what to ignore and what to pay attention to as it shifts back and forth.

Neuroscientists liken the process to a spotlight moving from one task to another with the transitions being neither instant nor smooth. In fact, studies have shown that texting takes a driver’s focus off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds – enough time to travel the entire length of a football field at 55 mph. Obviously, teens (and adults) who text while driving aren’t always going to get all the information they need to stay safe.

The texting habit:

Texting is a habit, and it’s a hard habit to break – especially for teens. Neuro-imaging studies indicate that the instant gratification of texting and getting a text in reply floods the brain’s pleasure center with dopamine. This feel-good neurotransmitter rewards teens for texting – often within seconds – sending the message, “That feels GOOD! Do it again!” and causing them to text even more. Thus, once started, it becomes harder and harder to stop.

Plus, research has shown that small messages that don’t fully satisfy – like those sent in texts – are the most addictive. What’s more, dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability. And unpredictable is exactly what texts are all about. We don’t know exactly when they’ll come or who will send them.

And then there are the Pavlovian cues. These are small, specific signals that a reward is on the way – like the ringtone indicating that a text has arrived. And these cues set off the dopamine system. Thus, the ringtone adds to the addictive effect of texting and makes it virtually impossible for teens to ignore an incoming message.

Truth be told, the habit-forming quality of texting affects both teens and adults, but teens are affected more. That’s because habits are learned. And with their brains still developing, teens tend to learn faster and better than we adults do, making the breaking of the texting habit that much more difficult for them.

The next post will explore what parents can do to debunk the multitasking myth and help their teens break the habit of texting while driving.

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