7 Scientific Reasons We Text & Drive and 3 Practical Solutions for Quitting


We went to the experts looking for answers about why so many of us still text and drive, even though we know we shouldn't.

texting and driving
7 min read

It was part of Dr. Gregory Gass’s job to be on call for his patients—and staff—24/7. A pyschiatrist at an in-patient facility in Tennessee, texting was still new to Gass and his staff in 2005. But the technology was easy and appealing: Nurses at the facility often sent him a text message instead of calling him, so that they might interrupt him less frequently. On Halloween night that year, Gass was coming off exit ramp when he got a text message. Traffic had slowed to a crawl, so he thought he would read it, to make sure it wasn’t something important. (He remembers even thinking to himself that he would read, but not respond.) Seconds later, he had rear-ended a minivan full of costumed kids. “No one was hurt, fortunately,” Gass said. “But after that, I really emphasized to my staff that we should be calling, and I set up my phone for more speakerphone activity. I changed my own personal habits.”

We talk distracted driving a lot at The Zebra, because it has such a direct tie-in to car insurance, and because, to be frank, it horrifies us. And the news rolls in all the time: Texting annoys drivers more than any other behavior. Texting while driving impairs you as much as drinking and driving. The facts are seriously, undeniably scary. But our conversations often move beyond the facts, to uncomfortable questions: Is it really just texting that’s the issue, or is checking an Instagram or Facebook like just as tempting—or more so? If we know it’s so dangerous, why do we see people stopped in front of just-turned-green lights All. The. Time. with their phones in hand?

Perhaps most basically, we wondered: Why on earth would we be motivated to risk the lives of others, and our own lives, just to be able to connect via phone? We trust Louis C.K.’s opinion implicitly, of course, but we wanted to bring a different kind of expert to the discussion, too. So we queried several psychologists and therapists. What we found surprised us:

7 Reasons Why We Text and Drive (Even When We Know We Shouldn’t)

  1. We think we can multitask. “Many people believe they can multitask without losing efficacy,” explains Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Michigan. But this is just a fantasy: “Research supports that people cannot devote 100 percent of their attention to each task. The more tasks they add on, the more their attention diminishes—but people believe they are the exception.”
  2. We think we’re better at it than everyone else. It’s not hard to understand: In order to maintain a habit so dangerous, we’d have to think we were exceptionally good at it, right? “Everyone believes they are an above-average driver to begin with (which, by definition, is not possible. Not everyone can be above average),” says Dr. Frank Bevacqua. “On top of that, however, everyone now believes that they are better at texting and driving than others, so while others shouldn’t do it, they can. Really, it is all just different stages of rationalization.” There’s also room to convince yourself that texting and driving accidents were caused by other factors that are in your control: “You think, Maybe they looked down too long or were not an experienced enough driver,” explains Dr. Judi Cinéas, who practices in Palm Beach, Fla. “That gives the person a sense of comfort that if they do not make those mistakes, then they will be able to safely engage in this dangerous activity.”
  3. Actually, we basically just think we’re superheroes. “There is a feeling of invincibility that accompanies such dangerous acts,” Bevacqua adds. “Once thought to be primarily reserved for adolescents, [psychologists] now recognize that everyone believes this to some extent: that something, no matter how dangerous, ‘couldn’t possibly happen to me.'”
  4. We’re expected to be constantly plugged in. Ain’t nobody got time for you not having time for them these days. “I think it’s cultural,” says Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D. “Everyone has an unrealistic sense of time demands now that people are reachable 24/7. There is a lurking anxiety that if we ‘take our time’ on a task or social interaction that we will be replaced by someone ‘better.'”
  5. Plus, we’re not that great at entertaining ourselves anymore. Dr. Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author, says that increasingly, we are unwilling to just be with ourselves. “People have become so used to being “entertained” and occupied all the time that just sitting quietly is a problem,” she says. “And so is focusing on driving.”
  6. We’re narcissists. Why yes, the world does need like right now our perfect 140-character cultural critique of this new Kanye Katy Perry jam. Because of this sense of narcissism, Napolitano says, “We feel like our thoughts or feelings must be delivered quickly.”
  7. Our self esteem feeds on social responses. Allen Wagner, licensed marriage and family therapist, explains exactly what we talk about at The Zebra: It’s not just a text, but a blinking, often pinging notification that becomes so tempting in the car. “Bringing immediate gratification and hope [someone liked my 70th photo of my dog!] to what is usually boring and predictable [red light, again.] can be an enticing thing to open up,” Wagner says.

So How Do We Fight All of This? 3 Practical, Realistic Solutions

Truth is, it’s hard. But it’s also vitally important. Here are three truly worthwhile ideas to help you curb your terrible habit. (And we know you’ve done it because we’re guilty, too!)

  1. Get the thing out of reach. That glove compartment that isn’t exactly full of gloves? Turn your phone on silent—or airplane mode—and slide it in. If you’re still too tempted, throw it in the trunk before getting behind the wheel. Let your loved ones and coworkers know about your new policy, and suggest they adopt it too. You put your plane on airplane mode for yoga class—can’t you do the same for your drive home?
  2. Distract yourself—safely. “Try getting audiobooks instead, or listening to interesting radio stations,” Dr. Tessina suggests. “Neither of those is as attention-absorbing as texting, which takes both your attention and your eyes off the road.” (I, personally, am a card-carrying NPR nerd/addict.)
  3. There’s an app for this. There are actually several of them. AT&T offers a Drive Mode App, which can detect when your car is traveling at more than 25 mph, stop you from sending texts, and even send an automatic response saying you’re driving and can’t talk right now. (It’s like a personal assistant!) Also, don’t forget, if someone is in the car for you, they’re probably about 99 percent happier to text for you than risk you getting them in a wreck. Phone a friend—get it?

How do you curb the urge to text and drive? How often do you see people engaging in this risky behavior—and how do you think we can stop it?

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I'm a Texas-based Kansan who misses seasons but loves breakfast tacos. My journalism and short stories have been published all over, including at Popular Mechanics, USA Today magazines, SELF magazine and Black Warrior Review. I have an MFA in fiction, but I'll stick to the truth at Quoted.