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We plow through five mile markers then slide 60 feet along the edge of the shoulder before enough snow piles up to scrape our ride to a halt.
This is the good outcome.
The three tons of steel traveling 55 miles an hour could have flipped and rolled in a second, killing everyone inside.
But after disentangling my heart from my esophagus, we determine that everyone’s fine.
Dad pulls himself out of the car to catch his breath on the side of the road, and he looks to his smartphone GPS to figure out how far we are from West Yellowstone, Montana.
It’s below freezing, and my phone doesn’t have anything remotely resembling service.
This is the second time he’s glanced at his phone for the GPS; the first is what landed us here.
How’d this happen? My guess is it has something to do with the dopamine.
I’m going to play fast and loose and speculate that a major component of cellphone interaction comes from “wanting” that dopamine response.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives us little jolts of pleasure to motivate us to go and seek out more pleasurable experiences.
It would seem to me that smartphones facilitate this process—every time you punch a button, you get a little jolt of dopamine, as that button push has the potential to take you somewhere pleasurable.
Thanks to the device’s ability to easily access the Internet, we have at our fingertips an unlimited amount of available seeking.
The satisfaction of clicking on a new thing keeps dopamine flowing along at a healthy thrum.
Today, we also have all sorts of connectivity to apps that offer validation—a double-tap on Instagram gives us the jolt that we love.
This is one of the core principles of design—draw the gaze without making it seem like you’re trying.
It can be a really lovely thing depending on your perspective, and we see all different manifestations of it on our smartphones. When we’re talking about driving though, ultimately design has little to do with why we crash into snowbanks while driving our vehicles.
Driving is boring, or at least we’ve been acculturated to believe so—the lone reward for most is getting where we need to go.
So as we travel along this dull journey from point A to point B, many instead pepper themselves with mini dopamine hits—snacks, music, or by mainlining digital dopamine like text messages, Snapchats, Vines (RIP), or whatever.
If we can get these mini seeking hits from dopamine while driving, the experience is far more pleasurable.
In the case of my accident, my dad distracted himself from act of driving by engaging with something that helped us anticipate getting there—his GPS.
It’s a strange sort of paradox, and the more you think about it, the weirder it gets.
In 2014, distracted driving was responsible for 3,179 deaths and 431,000 motor vehicle injuries according to the federal government.
That’s the latest data, but more is likely forthcoming as we become more and more attached to smartphones.
It’s been pretty well established that using a smartphone or any other distracting device while on the road has at the very least a detrimental effect on one’s ability to drive, and at the worst it’s incredibly dangerous.
The CDC classifies three main types of distraction: Visual (looking at the road), Manual (removing your hands from the wheel), and Cognitive (not thinking about driving).
Interacting with a cell phone engages all three of these.
To be fair though, chowing down on a double cheeseburger would hit me on all three fronts as well.
But if we hold for a moment that it’s bad to be twiddling a cell phone while you’re behind the wheel of a two-ton death machine, what is the US doing about it on a federal and state level?
President Obama has been a supporter of anti-texting and driving measures. Pictured: In 2010, he invited students to a White House science fair and honored the kids behind a device that sends out an alarm when you take a hand off the steering wheel for more then three seconds.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
The state of texting and driving
Turns out, the response to the issue isn’t that mixed.
In 2009, President Obama issued an order that prohibits federal employees from texting while driving on government business. Railway operators and commercial vehicle drivers have rules governing their use as well.
State response has been more sporadic.
As of this summer, 14 states (including DC) prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones while driving a car.
Those laws are what are referred to as primary enforcement laws—i.e. an officer can pull you over and cite you if he/she sees you using a phone. No states have bans on using hands-free devices totally, but 38 prohibit novice drivers from using cell phones in any capacity.
Now, what I’ve been rambling about: 46 states and DC have bans on texting while driving.
Four states do not—Missouri, Arizona, Montana, and Texas—though a few of these have bans on novice drivers utilizing devices to text.
I don’t want to ride the personal fallacy all the way to the bank, but my 60-year-old pop’s little smasheroo with a snowbank makes me suspicious of the assumption that errors only happen to novices.
Seeing this landscape and its sporadic enforcement, I was confused.
Even with this many legal measures in place, there’s still more than a few distracted driving deaths and injuries every year.
I wanted to know how effective these state measures are at preventing accidents.
Are these laws enforced? How effective are they? How many of these distracted driving deaths are caused by interactions with smartphones?
Turns out, these are not really easy questions to answer.
Enlarge / The wide-open roads of Montana aren’t immune to the dangers of texting and drive.
This is in Pondera County near Highway 89.
Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Crashes in Big Sky Country and beyond
I decided to follow a trail in Montana, where, coincidentally, my accident took place.
There were 192 crash fatalities in Montana in 2015. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any data on distracted driving, though impaired driving (alcohol/drugs) accounted for 10 of those fatalities.
It’s dangerous to generalize with data, so we’ll just leave those numbers there.
With stats not helping much, I chatted with Audrey Allums, a Grants Bureau Chief for the Montana Department of Transportation.
She’s responsible for approving grant funding for tons of different safety projects throughout the state.
For example, if a police department wants overtime pay to run a DUI training workshop, they send those requests to Allums.
Any sort of political action is not really within her purview, but she did tell me that many different cities in Montana have their own laws prohibiting the use of a cell phone while driving within city limits.
Allums noted the state has national data on distracted driving, and it’s a terrible thing that continues to cause loss of life. However, she wasn’t sure why Montana doesn’t have a primary enforcement law.
All Allums could add was that it’s really difficult to track if someone was using a phone or not when a crash took place.
This, of course, totally makes sense. When someone’s involved in an accident, first responders aren’t prioritizing the discovery out what caused the crash—their primary concern is saving lives. People involved in such accidents aren’t necessarily going to fess up either. Who’s going to admit to liking dog posts on Facebook when they crashed and killed someone?
Allums pointed me toward a recently proposed bill in the Montana state legislature: HB 297.
It was a primary enforcement law similar to what exists in many others states, and it passed in the House before ultimately failing to get a second reading in the Senate before the legislature adjourned.
The state’s website lists the bill as “probably dead.”
Other states are trying to minimize potential injuries due to texting in other ways.
At Utah Valley University, administrators have divided staircases into three lanes, one for walking, one for running, and one for texting.
Antwerp, Belgium has similar lanes for walking texters, but as a whole, this sort of solution doesn’t seem particularly widespread or effective.
Police have tried unconventional methods, like going undercover to catch and cite distracted drivers. New York might be working towards allowing police officers to use a device called a Textalyzer, which functions like a breathalyzer, except that it detects whether or not a touch screen has been used and text has been typed. Laws that enable strong penalization for distracted driving are becoming more common as well (for example, the recently passed Daniel’s Law in PA).
And, of course, all aspects of the auto industry are simultaneously pushing steadily towards autonomous driving mechanisms.
Tesla’s efforts may be the most high-profile, but tech companies like Google, traditional auto-powers like Ford, and new transportation companies like Uber are all scrambling towards similar goals.
In theory, removing the traditional role of a driver from all vehicles would free up individuals to toy with their phones as desired, but theory and practice are not one in the same.
A piece of technology can fail, and results could be tragic.
This reality is a long ways away anyway, as both the tech needs to improve and the regulations have to catch up.
Currently, these measures are by no means common and standard across all states, nor is there likely to be pressure federally for everyone to adopt unusual measures.
The sad reality, for now, is that we may just resign ourselves to more auto deaths until self-driving cars come to fruition and save the day (if ever).
Among other alternative anti-texting and driving initiatives: Simulations have been created to dramatize the experience for drivers.
This is one from AT&T’s 2014 “It Can Wait” campaign in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
In Maine, New Gloucester High School goes beyond the standard scared-straight, crashed car display.
The school held an entire live mock crash demonstration instead.
John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
No sign of stopping
Will these laws and measures make a difference?
There’s been research into that question.
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute has looked into it and found that texting and driving roughly doubles the reaction time of a driver when doing several different roadway activities.
They also found that voice-to-text services don’t do much in the way of alleviating the danger.
According to a CBS news report on a separate study done in 2015, researchers found that there was a seven percent reduction in car crash hospitalizations in states that issued bans between 2003 and 2010.
Though the researchers attempted to account for other laws that might have influenced that reduction, the researchers stand by their data.
Much of this research suggests creating stricter enforcement laws surrounding the use of devices on the road is a net good.
But let’s engage in a bit of wild speculation here: I’m not sure we can totally believe that people are going to use cell phones less in their vehicles.
Sure, many of the measures police are employing or mining data from cell phones post-crash might significantly improve our abilities to identify what caused those crashes, but so far, people seem to be using their phones in their cars more than ever before. Personally, I use my phone all the time as a navigational device, propped up right on my dashboard to give me directions wherever I’m headed.
This is the difficulty that safety officials face.
As cars become better designed, the fact that you’re driving a physics nightmare waiting to happen becomes more and more unreal.
Think about it. When was the last time you became fully aware of the fact that you were driving your metal bullet to the grocery store? That experience has an impossibly difficult time competing with our slick smartphones.
After the crash, my dad used his phone to locate an affordably-priced tow truck company with his data connection.
A few minutes later, the truck was there to pull the car from the bank.
Dad nestles the phone back into the front pocket of his vest, ready for its next use.
For more info on texting bans: http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/cellphone_laws.html
Thomas Wells is a writer and a teacher who lives in Bozeman, Montana. You can read the occasional tweet at @thomastalketh or check out his website at therealthomaswells.com.