Why Your Brain Can’t Handle Texting and Driving

As much as we're in control of whether we text or not, our relationship with our phones can wreak havoc on the part of the brain that controls impulses. 

Approximately 1.6 million accidents per year are attributed to texting while driving, according to The National Safety Council.

How could it not be true that the way many of us engage with phones while in the car is not responsible for a rising amount of death tolls and injuries?

To some extent, it’s important to understand how the brain science may be working in the case of driving with the phone.

The routine of checking the phone has become such a habit now that the procedure has been soft wired in our brains after thousands of repetitions. We no longer need to think for a millisecond about the intersection between waiting and grabbing the phone. The cue is there and we go for it.

Then, the phone hits our reward system, where if we check it, we may get a message or some interesting information off a website. This likely spikes our dopamine —a motivational chemical in the brain that shoots up and says “check it, check it, and check it some more.”

The prefrontal cortex—which has a hand in impulse control, is clearly offline as most people have very little of that when it comes to driving while handling their phones.

So, this tells us, like with alcohol and drugs, our brains have developed an intricate and automatic relationship with our phones where the communication happens so quickly that we have very little say in it. “Just Say No” is not that probable.

With a little space we can see why handling our phones in the car ups our chances for accidents and fatalities.

What are our options?

Remove it. One of my students recognized this and told me that she now drives with her phone in her trunk because she recognizes how little control she has. I thought that was a brilliant idea. A few second of gazing at your phone amounts to hundreds of feet of pavement missed.

Turn it off. This is another option, for the length of the car ride, you can turn the phone off, or put it in the glove compartment and only use it for phone calls if you have blue tooth.

Bring mindfulness to it. This is a third and very interesting option to experiment with. As you sit in the car, take a moment to practice STOP—where you Stop, Take a deep breath, Observe how you’re feeling, physically, emotionally and mentally and then Proceed by asking yourself, “How do I want to be with my phone on this car ride?” Then try it out as an experiment and see what you notice.

At the end of the day, this is a new social relationship we’re still in the process of developing and figuring out what is optimal for each one of us.

One thing we do know is that if you have the thought “This doesn’t apply to me,” this is your mind playing tricks on you. As the saying goes, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

It only takes a second, please share this with anyone you know who texts, chats, messages, or surfs the webs while driving.

Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy