Tackling Texting While Driving: ‘The Decision to Reach for That Phone Can Be Impulsive’

You already know that you’re not supposed to text and drive. Your parents have lectured you endlessly about it, you’ve been taught the horror stories about it in driver’s ed class, and you probably live in one of the 49 states where it’s illegal for teens to text behind the wheel.

But the numbers suggest you’re not always getting the message.

Teens were responsible for 9% of all the fatal crashes involving distracted drivers in 2017, according to government figures. While the percentage seems small, that’s nearly 300 deaths that could have been prevented. Not to mention countless injuries.

Kit Delgado, an emergency room physician who’s also an assistant professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, gets that it’s hard to keep your hands off your phone. He sees it all the time in patients who come into his ER, like the college student who was heading down the highway to pick up his girlfriend when he heard his phone ding. He picked it up, dropped it on the floorboard, reached down to get it and crashed into the guardrail.

“You talk to any teenager in the country, and they’ve been beaten over the head that texting while driving is dangerous,” Delgado says. “But the decision to reach for that phone can be impulsive, it can be emotional, it can be subconscious and automatic. Even though if you were to step out of the situation, you would say you shouldn’t be doing this.”

The Imperfection of Human Decision-making

Years of treating people who have been hurt in distracted driving crashes is a big reason why Delgado is researching this topic. He’s heading up a multimillion-dollar grant, one of the largest ever funded by the federal government, to figure out the best ways to use technology to help drivers put down their phones. The research team includes experts from the fields of medicine, behavioral economics, psychology, insurance and technology. They hope their work leads to the development of more smartphone programs that can nudge drivers into the correct behavior, like apps that automatically switch on to prevent incoming notifications while in the car.

“What my research group is trying to focus on is how can we design around the imperfection of human decision-making,” Delgado says. “I think we can make a big difference if we can solve for it the right way.”

For starters, Delgado says, “texting while driving” is an antiquated term for talking about the problem. Distracted driving means anything that takes your attention away from the road, whether it’s that Starbucks frappuccino you’re trying to sip, or arguing with your best friend about your Spotify play list. Conversations, eating, drinking, texting, checking emails and social media notifications, using navigation and music apps, even putting on lipstick all contribute to distracted driving.

“For me, it’s not necessarily about cell phones, it’s about all the facets that can be distracting,” notes Catherine McDonald, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing who has been studying teen driving for a decade. She’s working on the grant with Delgado and, like him, is motivated by her own experiences as a nurse treating young people injured in car crashes.

“What’s important to remember about driving is that you’re making decisions not just about yourself, but about other cars that you’re not controlling.” — Catherine McDonald

The research is still in the data-collection phase. Some of that data is coming from an app developed by TruMotion and being used by Progressive Insurance to capture all kinds of driving information – like hard breaking, speed, acceleration and distance traveled. The information will help the researchers figure out how to best use smartphones to help drivers of all ages.

“Tech is pervasive in the lives of teens. It’s a part of their very fabric, and the technology that we think of often is their smartphones that are with them all the time,” says McDonald, who also works at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania Center for Injury Research and Prevention. “This generation of drivers has grown up with the cellphone. They’ve had phones, they’ve seen parents with cellphones, so that piece of tech is a big part of their lives. When we move to the role of driving with teens, it’s figuring out how to keep them safe with that technology.”

To be fair, teens aren’t the worst offenders. Delgado says millennials – typically people between 25 and 34 – are the most distracted drivers of any age group. But the professors say that the lack of driving experience makes distractions most dangerous for teens. “We know it’s one of the leading contributors to fatal crashes in that group,” Delgado notes.

Teens may be doing things they think are safer, like waiting until they’re stopped at a red light to check notifications. But that’s time they could be using to assess what’s coming next – changes in cross-traffic patterns, a ball rolling into the street, a stalled car, and so on. “They need to be using all opportunities to take in information about the road,” McDonald says. “What’s important to remember about driving is that you’re making decisions not just about yourself, but about other cars that you’re not controlling.”

McDonald believes the distracted driving will decrease when society accepts the danger as a norm. For example, smoking, drunken driving and not wearing seat belts are all risky behaviors that have been reduced as people have internalized the message that they are dangerous. She also believes individualized approaches are needed, including assistive technologies.

The professors, guided by their research, were asked to give their best advice for teen drivers, and here’s what they suggest:

  • Use a Do Not Disturb app, which is automatically activated on many smartphones. The app prevents you from receiving notifications while driving and sends auto-responses to calls or texts. Some have settings that allow certain notifications to get through, so you can be reached in an emergency.
  • Use Apply Auto or Android Auto, available in newer cars, so you can give voice commands for most functions.
  • Get a phone mount for your dashboard. This will help you avoid looking down to find or use your phone.
  • Pick your playlist ahead of time. Music is one of the biggest distractions for teens, so set up your tunes before you start the vehicle.
  • Designate a passenger to handle your phone so that you don’t have to.
  • Talk to your parents so they understand you will not answer their calls when driving. Call them back as soon as you’ve reached your destination. “That’s a really simple conversation for a parent and a teen to have,” McDonald says. “Teens can initiate that, and it makes them really responsible.”
  • Know the laws in your state. Each jurisdiction is different, but 20 states and Washington, D.C., ban all handheld phone use.
  • Turn off your phone.

The professors practice what they preach. McDonald uses Apple Auto, and Delgado has a phone mount and a Do Not Disturb app. “It helps keep me honest,” Delgado says. “I’m busy like everyone else, and taking a few minor steps to counteract those urges to use the phone helps. It’s not easy, but there are a few things you can do that help more than willpower, which almost never works.”

That college student who crashed into the guardrail survived, but he had a head injury. Delgado wants to see more of his patients walk away from car crashes, and that starts with drivers understanding that nothing is more important than what they are doing behind the steering wheel.

“Because, at the end of the day, what really matters is not taking your eyes off the road,” Delgado says. “Anything that takes your eyes off the road for more than a second exponentially increases your crash risk.”


Hear the story of safe-driving advocate Liz Marks, who was 17 when she crashed her car while trying to read a text from her mom. She suffered a traumatic brain injury and facial injuries, and lost her sight in one eye and sense of smell.

Conversation Starters

Dr. Delgado says that his study is trying to figure out "how can we design around the imperfection of human decision-making.” What does that mean and how does it apply to the issue of texting while driving? What other issues might it involve?

How many of the professors’ driving tips do you follow?

As a passenger, are you confident enough to speak up if you think the driver is distracted by their phone or just not paying attention? Why or why not?

2 thoughts on “Tackling Texting While Driving: ‘The Decision to Reach for That Phone Can Be Impulsive’

  1. As a teenager myself, I experience firsthand the sudden urges to respond to snapchats at a red light or skip to the next song on my phone. So I understand the misconceived notion—that taking your eyes off the road for a second or less is a relatively innocuous action. But it’s these several milliseconds that could change someone’s life forever, or worse, your own life…or worse, death. Think about the impact that checking a text has on others now with a, hopefully, new perspective.

    While distracted driving is a serious issue, and while I could fill pages with my thoughts on it, I couldn’t help but think about another issue many teens (and people in general) have faced that is more or less out of their control. Given that the outline of this contest is to “practice critical and reflective thinking,” and “connect ideas, insights and opinions with what [has been] read,” I think that it is appropriate to share all that I have been able to think about recently, despite what I have been reading.

    Reflecting on the article about texting and driving, I found it hard to concentrate on the issue that was presented. Rather, my mind kept drifting off to think about how many lives have been affected in the past two weeks. We can thank…

    Santino Legan, who decided that an annual garlic festival with four decades of history would be a suitable setting to open fire on young children and their families,

    Patrick W. Crusius, who decided to take the issue of illegal immigration into his own hands and target Mexicans in his mission,

    and Connor Betts, who decided to kill his biological sister, as well as eight other bystanders with a pistol with a rapid fire rate, for shaking up the country and instilling a new level of fear in US citizens.

    We shouldn’t be scared to go shopping, nor should we be scared to enjoy a garlic festival, let alone grabbing a drink with friends. Yet, averaging more than a shooting a day since the start to 2019 is enough for the masses to be “scared.”

    Still aligning with the outline of Round 3, which asks for “a personal story,” I have two.

    The first one is that tomorrow, I am going to a music festival with my friends and a small part of me is afraid, which shouldn’t have to be the case. The second one is that I am living in a time where unnecessary fear has accrued as a result of lacking administration. In fact, we are all living that story, every day.

    I hope that my usage of this platform can help spark discussion and ultimately lead to change.


  2. “McDonald believes the distracted driving will decrease when society accepts the danger as a norm. For example, smoking, drunken driving and not wearing seat belts are all risky behaviors that have been reduced as people have internalized the message that they are dangerous.”

    McDonald’s claim that risky behaviors like distracted driving will decrease when we internalize the danger behind those behaviors seems to make sense. After all, most people do not put their hand back on the stove after being burned once. However, as the article acknowledges, we already know that we shouldn’t take a call, eat, or daydream while driving, yet we still do it. There’s a gap between knowing something is dangerous, or filling in the correct bubble on a permit test, and internalizing its danger and choosing not to drive distracted.

    Maybe a clue to this gap lies in how drivers education teaches danger. After an hour and a half of writing down boring rules in our notebooks (if you are parking uphill with a curb, point the wheels away from the curb…), my driving instructor would play the next episode of a safety film produced by the California Highway Patrol, and it was magic. When the lights came off, our heads would perk up, and we’d all spend the next half hour with our eyes glued on the screen. We couldn’t get enough of the vivid, greater-than-life depiction of high school. After a wild night partying, virtuous teens would make the mistake of driving drunk instead of calling a taxi. While still having wild fun in the car, what was about to happen next would ruin their lives forever. A bump in the road or a patch of ice on a bridge would send the vehicle flipping through the air or spinning out of control. Teens would be rushed to the hospital, and police would later interrogate and arrest some of them. The driver of the car that fateful night would see their friends disappear and forever receive only hateful glances from every direction. Teachers and parents would come on the screen and talk about the bright future the unfortunate victims once had. A scientist would recreate the exact scene of the accident, including a slow-motion of the car flipping through the air, talking about how if they had missed that one pothole, bump, or patch of ice, they might have ended up okay. The movie would end with an officer reminding us sternly that accidents from distracted driving could happen to anyone at any time.

    We didn’t think that would happen to us. Of course, some people choose to drive drunk, and maybe cars can flip that many times in the air. But that was entertainment, and it wasn’t us. We were good students who knew the rules of the road, and we had been driving for months without an accident. Perhaps one issue is that the movies seemed too exaggerated, too un-lifelike.

    California Highway Patrol must have thought this as well because their older driver’s ed films tried to be more realistic. Red Asphalt, for instance, had been put together from footage of real accidents. While some experts argue that those horror films have lost their effectiveness due to the widespread violence in video games and movies, many drivers education instructors believe that the gorier films are more effective. Most people, including Tom Marshall, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, acknowledge that the film won’t permanently change driving habits, but “if it can get kids to focus on it for the first month or two [that they’re driving], it has done its job.” Whether gore is more effective than drama is up to debate, but educational films’ shift to emotion shows that shock was not effective enough in changing long-term behavior. Indeed, there’s a value in safety films to increase attention in the first few months of supervised driving. However, it seems that after that supervision, we think that those films can’t be us, and return to bad habits.

    Unfortunately, this trend holds for other behavior as well. We think that the past will repeat itself in the future, which can lure us into a false sense of security. We are aware of economic bubbles, most famously the Dutch tulip-mania, yet a lot of us continued buying houses up to the Great Recession because the price had risen for the past few years. We cheat on exams because we haven’t been caught before and “only the bad cheaters get caught.” One of my favorite statistics is that 73% of drivers think they’re better than average. After a shock like a bubble collapse or getting caught on a test, we may swear we’ve learned our lesson and change our behavior only to return to bad habits days or weeks later. We’re creatures of habit, and it’s easier not to start a bad habit than to get out of one.

    Maybe no driving film can pull us away from already-developed technology addiction. However, there is still another issue on the table: driver’s ed movies may promote the behavior they intend to prevent by glamorizing danger. As journalist Martin Smith notes, Red Asphalt may be one of the most-viewed movies ever, and that may be due to reasons of entertainment, not education.

    In his riveting memoir This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff speaks to the risk of glamorizing harmful behavior. The World War II dramas he watched are hauntingly similar to the scare films of today, “always with a somber narrator to remind us that this wasn’t make-believe but actual history, that what we were seeing had really happened and could happen again.” While Wolff acknowledges that the depiction of the Nazis’ downfall produced “glimpses of humiliation and loss,” they only lasted a few minutes. Wolff believes that the point of the show was not to discourage Nazism: “the real point was to celebrate snappy uniforms and racy Mercedes staff cars and great marching, thousands of boots slamming down together on cobbled streets while banners streamed overhead and strong voices sang songs that stirred our blood though we couldn’t understand a word. These shows instructed us further in the faith we were already beginning to hold: that victims are contemptible, no matter how much people pretend otherwise, that it is more fun to be inside than outside, to be arrogant than to be kind, to be with a crowd than to be alone.”

    Certainly, not everyone is driven to dangerous behavior in the way that Wolff was. However, the risk of glamorizing danger is real. In one famous example, the DARE program may have encouraged drug use through its aggressive scare tactics.

    The dilemma of human nature is that we learn more from putting our hand on the stove than being lectured about the dangers of burning ourselves. Even when we get burned, our learning may be temporary. However, we can’t afford to burn ourselves when it comes to driving. Therefore, the paradox of safety education is to make the danger seem real and instill fear but not to glamorize risky behavior. The gap between learning and internalizing is how much we believe in the world inside the television screen. Through the difference between greater-than-life reality TV and my experiences in the world outside my window, the world on the screen seems slightly foreign. At times, it can even be enticing.

    Sources on the effectiveness of Red Asphalt:

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