The Psychology of Texting and Driving, and How to Put the Phone Down

By: Melissa Warren Email
By: Melissa Warren Email

"In previous research, they've been able to make a claim that texting and driving is equivalent to having a 0.19 blood alcohol level, so twice the legal limit," said WKU Psychology Assist. Professor Stephen O'Connor.

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) -- If you're caught texting and driving, you could soon face a 25-dollar fine plus court costs for your first offense. Just this August, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear announced the state would strengthen it's penalties. Now you can be assessed penalty points on your license, and potentially lose it with multiple offenses. Officers say despite the law, they see it all the time.

Would you choose to drive a vehicle if this was what you saw?

"You may have someone who would never think of drinking and driving a vehicle, but because texting and driving is still somewhat of a new thing, they don't realize the danger level is the same," said Bowling Green Police Ofc. David Grimsley.

Officer Grimsley says for some that means taking eyes off the road for ten seconds or more.

"Now, if I was driving down the road and took my eyes off the road for the next twelve seconds, you can see the different obstacles I'm going to encounter. I've got a bicyclist. I now have an oncoming car that's turned at the intersection. I have a red light with two cars stopped. and there's a guy over here that's running, so it's a very dangerous situation," said Grimsley.

One local psychologist at WKU studies compulsive cell phone use and driving, and has discovered a similar trend.

"In previous research, they've been able to make a claim that texting and driving is equivalent to having a 0.19 blood alcohol level, so twice the legal limit," said WKU Psychology Assist. Professor Stephen O'Connor.

O'Connor says taking your eyes off the road isn't the only danger in texting. Taking your mind off the task is too.

"It's that anticipation factor that really seems to explain the link between compulsive cell phone use, and motor vehicle crashes. When people are anticipating an incoming call, it seems like they have a greater sense of urgency to want to respond to that, and then because they're felling that urgency, there's probably a greater risk they will take their eyes off the road and try and respond to a call. What could this call mean from work, or what could this call mean from a loved one? It could be very important, and if I don't answer it, I might be missing something important," said O'Connor.

The question remains, can it wait? The law suggests it can.

"It's very specific toward reading, sending, or composing any written text message, email, or anything in that realm. It's not specific or illegal to dial a number or save a number in your cell phone," said Ofc. Grimsley

Officers say it can be difficult when patrolling, to be able to tell the difference between a driver texting, or just putting information into a GPS or making a phone call, but that doesn't mean they're not looking.

"It does make it difficult. It's challenging, especially if you're in a Ford Crown Victoria, or the typical police car and you're driving next to a taller SUV, obviously it's harder for us to see. I would be hard pressed to say if we've got someone traveling in traffic, and we can see they're using their cell phone for a good deal of time, you're probably going to be looking at having a traffic stop," said Grimsley.

Grimsley says expanding the law to require hands free use could go a long way.

"I think it would be easier not only for enforcement purposes, but it would be safer. If you don't have anybody, or at least if the law doesn't allow anybody to drive around and use their phone for any purpose, I think you're distraction level is going to at least drop a little bit," said Grimsley.

Grimsley says if an officer is not certain you violated the law, and unless you could face charges because of a fatality or injury caused by an accident, it's unlikely an officer will do more than talk to the driver about the dangers.

"Education goes a long way. If you take the time to stop and talk to somebody and say, you're really putting yourself at a great risk, as well as other motorists, you may get further than if you had just written them a ticket and went on about your day," said Grimsley.

Grimsley and O'Connor say it's all about the driver's choice.

"The point here is that people need to be more mindful about the decisions they make about using the cell phone," said O'Connor.
For now, both say they will continue to do what they can to educate others on making the safe choice.

O'Connor says he hopes his research can help auto manufacturers create technology that can help cars let people know when it is safest to use a phone, but says ultimately it's the drivers responsibility to make the decision not to text and drive.

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