A new problem for a new age

Distracted driving doesn’t fit the mold of previous roadway dangers

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made the case to an audience of MIT students and faculty that technological distractions in the car constitute an “epidemic” — each year, 6,000 people die because someone was texting or making a call while on the road. And Secretary LaHood is right. Distracted driving is a problem. But the Department of Transportation’s plan to tackle this challenge in the same way they taught us to wear seat belts and not drive drunk might have some problems of its own.

Secretary LaHood pointed out that the “distraction” while using a cell phone or GPS while driving is principally cognitive — research has shown that there seems to be a limited amount of attention that can be deployed to any one task at any one time. The catch here, though, is that it’s often difficult to realize exactly how little attention is being devoted to driving when other tasks are competing for attentional resources. The result, like in the case of drunk driving, is that drivers dangerously misjudge their actual ability.

At the same time, distracted drivers think they’re getting something in exchange for their potentially risky behavior: productivity, of some form or another. Cell phones and smartphones let drivers kill two birds with one stone, by getting office work done while going to the office. People who don’t have those kinds of work obligations, like teenagers, can still be “socially productive” by driving and talking or texting. Everybody sees the appeal, and nearly everybody with a cell phone does it at some point or another.

Compound peoples’ desire to multitask on the road with the market forces in play to feed that desire. Fast food chains, cell phone accessory manufacturers, GPS manufacturers and even software developers all stand to profit when they target a previously untapped chunk of American time: the commute. They depend on the fact that when people are driving, they aren’t just driving.

The DOT needs to recognize that the distracted driving problem is fundamentally different from seat belt and drunk driving concerns of the past. First, driving drunk or without a seat belt confer much less tangible advantages to the driver, relative to the risk of those behaviors. The only conceivable reason not to wear a seat belt is an issue of comfortability, and people who choose to drive while drunk do so because they have impaired cognition. Checking e-mail or taking calls, on the other hand, seem like reasonably productive ways to spend time and have real payoffs. Drivers might guage the “importance” of a call relative to their vague sense that driving while talking isn’t optimally safe. When they take they call, no matter what it is, they have judged incorrectly — no call is important enough to take while driving, since drivers have the option of simply pulling over.

Second, it’s much less obvious to the driver that multitasking is a truly risky behavior. Except for the case of lap-belts, nobody who chooses to wear a seat belt can make an argument that they are just as safe as a strapped-in passenger. The “cognitive distraction” posed by cell phones and in-car technology is such that drivers are unaware of what they can’t see thanks to diminished attention; see work by former MIT professor Jeremy Wolfe on similar phenomena. From the driver’s perspective, even while using a hands-free headset, they can still “see” everything on the road. But even for experienced drivers, this is an illusion.

When I had the chance to speak with Secretary LaHood on Monday, he noted the success of “Click it or Ticket” and drunk driving campaigns, and felt that with highly visible enforcement and increased awareness of distracted driving dangers, today’s problem could be fought in a similar way as yesterday’s. To be sure, he noted that technology might have a special role to play in preventing distracted driving, and that is important. But his support for technological innovation should have been matched by support for innovative behavioral approaches. Instead, the Secretary could not point out to me how the DOT might be adapting their educational strategies of previous decades for a new age.

Fortunately, the DOT does recognize that there is no technological “magic bullet” to stopping the distracted driving epidemic, and emphasized a multi-pronged approach combining technology, education, enforcement and legislation. But Secretary LaHood and his administration should be mindful of the fact that distracted driving is a new problem that calls for a new strategy.