Have you ever had to slam on your breaks while driving because you were paying more attention to your phone than the vehicle in front of you? If you’re like many Americans, you likely answered yes, despite feeling guilty about it.
In 2014 alone, more than 3,170 people were killed in vehicle crashes as a result of distracted driving. In that same year, roughly 431,000 were injured because of the same reason, according to distraction.gov. We know distracted driving is dangerous, so why do we keep reaching for our phones while we drive? Well, to answer this question, we need only look to our brains.
You may not even realize it, but when you receive a text message, email or social media alert, your brain actually releases a “hit of dopamine,” explains David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, in a 2016 CNN report.
Dopamine, which is a chemical that makes us feel good, triggers an immediate reward response to the sound our phones make when we receive a text, email or alert. The more we look at our phones after receiving this “hit” and the more times these messages come from people we like, the more likely we are to associate this behavior with happiness and pleasure.
There is more to just dopamine when it comes unraveling the mystery of why we text and drive. As an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham explains, psychology also plays a major role in distracted driving.
Each time we look at our phones while driving and nothing bad happens, our brains trick us into thinking that the behavior is safe. The more times this happens, the more this belief is reinforced. It’s only until we experience an accident first hand that we realize the true danger of distracted driving.
While ignoring our phones is the ultimate solution when it comes to reducing distracted driving accidents, self-control can be difficult, especially because the reward center of the brain shuts down the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning and judgment.
Relying on technology like Groove, which holds messages and alerts while a person is driving, may be our best hope, though a combination of technology and self-control can’t hurt.