Why Can’t We Stop Using Our Phones While Driving?

July 20, 2020


Road Safety


Ella Donald

Penalties are rising, there’s no shortage of coverage on incidents, and we know it’s dangerous … but regardless, we can’t seem to stop using our phones constantly. Whether it’s texting while driving or snapping while walking down the street, electronic devices continue to be a rising cause of injuries and deaths worldwide, and a trap for public liability cases. So, why can’t we resist the temptation of our devices? Are we in a false sense of security? Is it that bad? How do we stop?

hand holding mobile phone at night

How dangerous is driving distracted?

“Mobile phone use in cars is the drink-driving of this generation,” Victoria’s roads safety minister, Jaala Pulford, said in May 2019. “The research tells us people think just two seconds is not as horrifically hazardous as it is.

“If you’re travelling at 100km/h an hour, for 55 metres it’s equivalent to having a blindfold on.”

NRMA surveyed 1000 of its members in July 2017, finding that 62% thought they were likely to get caught using a hand-held mobile phone, that 15% thought they were not likely to get caught, and that 21% had near miss car accidents where the other driver was using a device. Respondents reported that a number of activities were keeping their eyes off the road, including text messaging and emails, operating hands free devices, taking selfies, phone calls, and social media. 

In NRMA’s survey, it was also found that, as mobile phone use was increasing, the problem was only increasing. According to the NSW Office of State Revenue, from 1 July 2015 to 30 June 2016 there were 38,441 fines issued to drivers for using hand-held mobile phones, an 8.7% increase on the previous year. There is a similar trend in Queensland - from 2016 to 2019, more than 50 000 fines were issued for distracted driving; and in 2017, 38 people were killed and 1224 hospitalised as a result of distracted driver motor vehicle accidents on Queensland roads. 

But the danger is not only on the roads, it’s also on the streets. The dangers of texting and walking are also pertinent, with the practice quickly becoming criminalised around the world - including possibly in Australia. Pedestrian deaths are continuing to surge around the world, including at home (according to BITRE data, a 9.3% increase from 2017 to 18), with the Pedestrian Council of Australia advocating for a $200 fine against distracted pedestrian technology use. Under their recommendations, the fine would be to deter people from texting or listening to music while crossing the road, even when at a green light. “The penalties are currently very low for distracted pedestrians and they are rarely even enforced because it is often too difficult,” Harold Scruby, Chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia said in 2019. 

Why is it so hard to stop using mobile phones?

A look at your iPhone’s usage tracker will tell you the obvious - we are obsessed with our phones, picking them up countless times a day, afraid to miss a single development. In July 2015, a Gallup poll of 15,747 adult smartphone users found that 41% check their a few times an hour, and 11% every few minutes; also finding that 51% of 18 to 29 year olds checked a few times an hour, and 22% checking every few minutes. In the years following that survey, usage has only gotten larger - in 2019, it was estimated that the average smartphone user unlocks their device 150 times a day, and that longer periods of use alter brain chemistry. 

So, aside from everything including maps, communication, banking, and more being on smartphones, what keeps us so invested? In 2015, psychologist Larry D. Rosen Ph. D. attempted to answer that question. “When you glance at your phone, in the absence of an alert or notification, how do you feel?,” he said. “I would bet that sometimes you feel happy, like when you read something on Facebook that makes you smile or watch a video that you then forward to your friends. But I'd also bet that sometimes you feel relief—that you have not missed out on something someone posted or said (FOMO); that nobody is having fun without you; or even that you are among the first to like or comment on a post.”

“When you do an activity and subsequently feel pleasure or satisfaction and the desire to do that same action again in order to gain the feeling, then it is most likely an addiction. If, however, you do an activity and feel a sense of relief that you did not miss out on something “going around,” or that you are the first to do something, then this is most likely a sign of obsession. An obsession is not built around the brain chemistry that produces the equivalent physical feeling of pleasure. It is built around performing an act that reduces your feelings of anxiety.”

It’s this search for affirmation, of not being separated from the action online, that keeps us coming back for more - we’re so accustomed to a constant flow of information, that an unanswered notification feels akin to being excluded.

Is texting worse that drink driving?

In fact, studies show that using phones while driving is more dangerous than after drinking. This isn’t new information - it was being reported as early as 2002, back when the Nokia 3310 was all the rage and Instagram wasn’t even a pipe dream. More recently, a 2018 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States found that texting and driving is six times more dangerous than intoxication, motorists having significantly slower reaction times. A study by the University of Utah reported that: “Drivers who talked on either handheld or hands-free cell phones drove slightly slower, were nine percent slower to hit the brakes, displayed 24 percent more variation in following distance as their attention switched between driving and conversing, were 19 percent slower to resume normal speed after braking, and were more likely to crash.”

How do we stop texting while driving?

Using both fines and technology, governments are quickly responding to the rising figures. In 2019, the Queensland Department of Transportation raised the fine for using devices while driving from $400 to $1000 - this applies to touching any part of the phone, including turning a call on loud speaker and picking a song. Under the regulations, repeat offenders could also lose their license. When the regulations were introduced, RACQ spokesperson Lauren Ritchie advised motorists to adopt a "set and forget" mindset.

"If you are using your phone for GPS or even setting a playlist and putting some music on or a podcast, set it before you get on the road and forget it," she said.

However, faced by bad press, smartphone manufacturers are also integrating safeguards in their operating systems. This includes Apple’s Do Not Disturb While Driving feature, which was introduced with iOS 11. When switched on (through Settings > Control Center > Customize Controls > Do Not Disturb While Driving), it automatically detects when a vehicle is in motion, and stops notifications. To use your phone while the car is in motion, you have to tap I’m Not Driving to turn it off. While Android software has no integrated equivalent, there are a variety of apps available - like Driving Detective and Text Stopper.

Ella Donald

Ella is a Brisbane based writer for Smith's Lawyers who has written for many noteworthy publications including Vanity Fair, CNN, GQ Middle East, The Guardian, Fairfax, and The Saturday Paper. She covers topics such as entertainment and arts, sport, fashion, food, social and cultural issues, health and beauty, technology, law and travel. She also teaches at the University of Queensland in the School of Communication and Arts.