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Impulsive and Addicted-The challenges of addressing teen texting while driving February 5, 2010

Posted by Gretchen Giannelli in Health Communications & Marketing, Mental Health, Prevention, Social Marketing.

As I drove home one night this week my cell phone rang and I reached over and hastily struggled through my purse to see who was texting me.   When I saw the text message from a friend with some exciting news, I felt a rush. Then the traffic light turned red and I considered texting a quick “Woo Hoo,”  trying to figure out if the timing would work and I wouldn’t be honked at by the cars behind me.  I decided to wait until I was out of heavy traffic to pull over and text her back. But I found it odd that, after about a minute, the urge passed and I realized I could wait another half hour until I got home.

Looking back at that one minute experience, it seems I could almost feel those proverbial twins of conscience as they pulled me to and fro. I like to think that my age and experience gave me a slight edge in resisting the impulse, but what about younger drivers?  A Washington Post article provides recent statistics showing that texting is now responsible for increasing numbers of teenage driving deaths. They also have a link to a graphic video of the horrible consequences of this common activity.

A report from the Pew Research Center shows that parents like me are texting right along with their kids.  However, teens face particular challenges resisting because they have growing brains. In a Journal of Preventive Medicine article from 2008 Dr. Ronald Dahl discusses emerging knowledge about brain-behavior-social context interactions during adolescent development. He lays the foundation by stating well known truths about teenagers: due to their immature brains they have trouble self regulating behavior and emotion and are more likely to participate in risky behavior, especially when they are with peers.  Also, they are so bombarded with information on a constant basis that they lose the ability to make careful decisions. It seems the more stimulated the pre-frontal cortex is, the less able people are to refrain from impulsive decisions. The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s conductor, in charge of executive functions. With too much constant stimulation and information the brain gets “tired” and cannot handle the increased energy it takes to delay gratification.

So what happens when adolescents, with brains which are still developing, are exposed to higher demands and more stimulation and on a more frequent basis than ever? Should this new science be taken into consideration when drafting legislation banning texting? Should cars come installed with some kind of technology that deactivates cell signals when the engine is on? Is educating teens enough or is the temptation just too hard for them to resist?  Although 19 states now have laws banning texting while driving, a Reuters report shows that teens simply ignore the laws and text anyway.

Besides research into addressing the impulse to text, new research should also focus on the addictive nature of cell phones in general. Some articles have labeled them “the new cigarettes”. While these reports compare the new addiction and harm from cell phone radiation to  cigarettes and cancer  it could be argued the most dangerous aspect of the cell phone addiction is that texting will lead to so many road fatalities.

As I watch my teenagers and their friends clicking away I see huge obstacles: the impulse to text and the addiction.  To begin with, if we expect teenagers to listen, then parents must start leading by example and refrain from any cell phone use while driving.  Leading by example won’t be enough in this case however. Stronger regulations and use of technology to address this complicated behavioral issue must be a priority to save lives.



1. Ashraf Faden - February 6, 2010

It’s troublesome when people get distracted from driving. Just the other day, someone ran into that rear end of my car. He said that he just got distracted a little. A LITTLE?? The guy NEVER even pressed on his breaks!! I can almost bet you that it was a cell phone and he wasn’t a teenager.

Unfortunately, curiosity many times gets the best of us. Besides fines and regulations, we have to keep a cautious mind about picking up a cell phone. One thing I tried, if I thought it was an important call, I stop on the shoulder or just turn into a neighborhood and park the car while I answer the phone.

2. TrySafetyFirst - February 6, 2010

Atlanta based Try Safety First President and entrepreneur John Fischer has developed technology to prevent texting and emailing when behind the wheel. Please open video link. For more information contact John Fischer at 770-652-4517 or john.fischer@trysafetyfirst.com.

3. Renee Hill - February 7, 2010

You make very interesting points. I look back on when I got my drivers license and it was right after WI enacted new laws for young drivers. We weren’t allowed to have more than one person in the car who we weren’t related to for nine months after getting our licenses. Most people ignored that even though it was for our own personal safety. Personally I followed it for a few months, but I know that I didn’t follow it for the whole nine months. At 16 you dont realize all the dangers of driving and seeing adults texting and emailing while driving cant help the problem. I really am not sure what will. Of course this is another thing that we tell teens not to do and they see it as an easy rebellion. As you state, why do you need to respond immediately? Why cant you wait 30 minutes? But we live in this world of immediacy. I agree with what you are saying, but really have no idea how to fix this problem.

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