Does Cellphone Addiction Cause Texting and Driving Fatalities?

By May Wilkerson 06/12/15

It takes an average of five seconds for a person to check their phone while driving. Plenty of time to kill someone.

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Is your cellphone use putting yours and other people's lives in danger? Texting while driving is a major cause of traffic accidents, but it can still be a tough habit to kick.

This is because checking your phone can stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers, leading to a dopamine rush. Much like gambling or gaming, the behavior is “very neurologically addictive,” Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, told The Huffington Post. "When you get a hit—finding something or hearing from someone, you get an elevation of dopamine, and it compels us to keep checking."

Like gambling, checking your phone gets you hooked with the promise of an unpredictable reward. "Smartphones are essentially the world's smallest slot machine," he said. "Every time you go on your phone, whether to look at a Facebook update or check your email, you never know what you're going to get and how good it's going to be."

The payoff is high enough that many people will feel compelled to check their phones, even when the results could be fatal. According to Greenfield, it takes an average of five seconds for a person to check their phone while driving, more than enough time to swerve off the road or fail to see an oncoming car.

"You're taking your attention away from a highly complex task for five to 15 seconds, and that's all it takes for a tragedy to happen," he said. According to his research, a “vast majority” of people admit to checking their phones while driving, even though they know it’s unsafe.

So if drivers are unwilling to ditch the dangerous habit, what’s the solution? Kathryn Henry, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said the agency is trying to ramp up education about the dangers of texting and driving, including holding workshops at schools.

But Greenfield believes only stricter laws banning cellphone use in cars will make a difference. "As a doctor, this is not going to be solved by medical or psychiatric means," he said. "This is going to be solved by tougher laws and banning smartphones in cars. No amount of public education is going to fix this." Texting while driving is currently illegal in 46 states, but only 14 states ban drivers from talking on their phones.

Based on the success of laws restricting drunk driving, he’s optimistic, adding "I think eventually phones will be be banned in cars, period. There’s just too much evidence and too many people dying."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.