Our cellphone addiction has become a deadly epidemic – Kenneth C. Mills

A Garner High School 9th grader uses her phone as she tries to text and drive during an exercise at the school on April 9, 2014.
A Garner High School 9th grader uses her phone as she tries to text and drive during an exercise at the school on April 9, 2014. cseward@newsobserver.com

Over the last six years or so, we’ve seen a simple behavior (glancing at a phone) become a deadly addiction for thousands. It’s not just the glance, but the obsessive checking throughout the day, regardless of other activities going on. The text epidemic is out of control.

The other day I was leaving my physician’s office and a medical-care worker in surgical greens was walking through the parking lot with his focus exclusively on his phone. I was tempted to ask whether he was aware of the rising number of ER visits due to phone use while walking, bike riding and especially driving. I remained silent.

A 2017 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that “most drivers view texting or emailing while driving as a very serious threat to their own personal safety and consider it completely unacceptable. However, nearly 1 in 3 admit to typing or sending a text message or email while driving in the past month, and 2 in 5 report reading a text message or email while driving in the past month.”

A comment posted by an AlertDriver student summarizes the phenomenon well:

My brother has the same habit that all 20-somethings seem to have: obsessive phone use at all times. Gotta text, snap and insta everything and everyone. I have received numerous texts from him when I know he is driving, as well as seen countless instagram posts of videos taken while driving. We as a family have asked many times that he not do it while the car is moving at least, but it doesn't seem to leave any impact.” MM, 26

Professional truck drivers, who sit well above other vehicles and have a bird’s eye view, unanimously say that texting and driving makes them feel more unsafe than a host of other distractions. Only drinking and driving are perceived as more threatening to their safety.

What to do? There is strong support (88.4 percent) for laws restricting reading, typing, or sending a text message or email while driving. But such laws are difficult to enforce; state and local police forces would have to expand exponentially. Texting might be added to a ticket for speeding, or mentioned as a contributing factor in a crash, yet seldom are tickets issued for just phone use.

As the AAA report highlights, our attitudes toward phone use do not match our behaviors. One of the unintended consequences of increasing general awareness of the issue is that drivers have become more secretive, and more dangerous, in their phone habits. Looking down into one’s lap is a dead giveaway for something suspicious going on, and the “eyes off the road” times increase dramatically.

In the AlertDriver course, we place a strong emphasis on the 2-second rule. Research now clearly implicates that eyes-off times greater than the 2 second threshold increase crash risk. Once AlertDriver students grasp the implications of the 2-second rule, they shut off their phone, and its alerts, when they drive. One AlertDriver student comments:

I cannot stress enough to people everywhere that texting and driving is so dangerous. I wish that each vehicle was equipped with a bluetooth device that did not allow apps on cell phones to work while the car was in motion because I see a lot of people on social media, especially snap chat, posting pictures and videos while driving. This is so scary to me. RM, 44

Phone users might need to look inward and ask themselves tough questions about proactively changing their glance habits. For many, it will be difficult when an entertaining new technology lets them do something they couldn’t do otherwise.

AlertDriver graduates frequently recommend putting your phone in the glove box and enjoying the drive. They have become increasingly aware that a glance might cost a life.

I had a classmate that was driving from DC to Durham a five hour drive her phone rang she reached to answer it and took her eyes off the road and hit the guard rail killing herself and 15 year old daughter. When we got to class everyone was so sad because she was a sweet person and my friend. RIP! JB, 35

Kenneth C. Mills, Ph.D., lives in Chapel Hill.